When I was 9, my parents took me to see 21 Up, the third in filmmaker Michael Apted’s Up documentary series. The amazingly ambitious premise of this series—exploring the Jesuit motto “Give me the child until he is 7 and I will give you the man”—traces the lives of 14 people from 1964 (when they are 7) to the present. Every seven years, Apted visits them, conducts new interviews and produces a new documentary.
Bruce at age 7, as seen in
I just watched 56 Up.
At 9, I didn’t understand anything about the documentary as a social experiment, but I was fascinated by the footage of Apted’s subjects—at 7, 14 and 21. It was such an incredible, honest record of life—I was coming off a summer of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind—and 21 ignited in me an almost immediate affinity. I felt the same thing a few years later when our local PBS station ran a marathon of all 12 episodes of An American Family, the 1973 WNET series that documented seven months in the life of a California family. In both instances I thought, I totally know these people.
That would be a crazy-person response to viewing any “reality” television today, but the people in both the Up series and An American Family are real and relatable.
I do feel that same engagement with the subjects of documentaries we’ve written about, but the attachment is so brief. When I can get a contemporary documentary series like Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost trilogy, monitoring the continuing case of the West Memphis Three, I sign on.
I’ve seen all of the Up films, and each time there’s another one I feel a weird combination of anxiety (that seven years has passed so quickly), appreciation (that Michael Apted has dedicated so much of his life to sustaining this project) and excitement. I want to see how my “friends” are doing.