Tuesday, March 08, 2005

The Up Series: 21

me: Leverkusen, Germany - Dec 1994
Photo: me stepping way back in time...

This post has been sitting in draft mode because I've been thinking about it all day!

Follow-up to Thursday's post: The Up Series - Mother of All Reality Shows.

We watched '21 Up' last night-- the 14 children who were interviewed when they were 7 years old in 1964 are now 21. David and I are fascinated by this documentary. On one hand, 21 years of age feels like a lifetime ago for us thirtysomethings, but at the same time it feels like yesterday. David was taking Graphic Design at Penn State and I was traipsing around somewhere distant. In that time of our lives we were oblivious to each other's existence. While David had a clear sense of direction, I was flying by the seat of my pants. It's a pivotal age -- legally an adult, but lacking the certainty and confidence that adulthood is expected to bring.

The 14 children from '7 Up' and 'Seven Plus 7' are interviewed again, 14 years after they're first brought together one day in London, and asked various questions about sex, happiness, careers, family life, and what they thought of themselves, watching the footage from when they were 7 and 14. For every question they answered, five more popped into my head:

What if they were filmed every 5 years, instead of 7?
Why 4 girls and 10 boys? Why not 7 and 7?
Would the boarding school children ship their own kids off to boarding school, too?
Would these people have agreed to participate if they'd known how long the series would go?
Were any of the kids coached on what to say by their parents?
How did their parents react to their interviews?
Were their parents given a list of questions they'd be asked?
Did the parents object to any of the questions? Were they allowed to see the footage before editing?
What information was lost in the editing process?
Did they regret anything they said, or admitted?

At first I thought 5-year increments would be more interesting, but after seeing how difficult it was for some of them to respond, I realised just how intrusive this documentary may have been to their lives. Now I think 5 years would've been too frequent -- it might have affected their decision-making, and too present in their minds around the filming year. One crucial difference between the 'Up!' series and today's reality TV is that these participants did not volunteer themselves for the project -- their parents did, and it was likely the case when they were 14 as well. By the time they reached 21, they were able to decide for themselves whether they wanted to participate or not, and this is the first installment where we get to see them as independents. It's not an easy time, and definitely not an easy time to be under the microscope, exposed to the public at large.

Would I have participated in such a project? At this stage, I am increasingly doubtful. At first impression, it sounds interesting to document your life this way. But, 7 and 14 are tender ages and the audience is left to guess at a great deal of information, such as what their parents are like and how much influence they have on these children. Where do their ideas about politics and racial issues come from if not from their parents? In '21 Up' nearly all have moved out of their family home -- one is a squatter -- and two of the girls have married. Some sound defensive, resentful, and cynical. Some sound genuinely happy and hopeful. Others seem resigned, frustrated, or vague about the future. (Interestingly, many of the upper-class children's parents have divorced.) Everything positive and negative cross class lines, and defies whatever patterns one may expect from status in terms of success or failure or happiness at 21. Each participant has his or her own story, and while comparisons can be made to each other, the most interesting comparison to make is over time.

Time is the most compelling feature of this documentary.

The way I see it, the main issue with making a documentary is its subjectivity of truth. Truth is somewhat fleeting, ephemeral. Interviewing the 7-year old is most ephemeral. Kids like green beans today but not tomorrow. They were friends yesterday, but had a falling out at 3 o'clock and now it's all over. Change is the most enduring and inevitable aspect of childhood. Yet, we cannot help but lock them into a personality at 7 years old. I'd mentioned last week how dismayed we were at hearing upper-class Londoner Susie talk about "coloured people" with disdain after she's filmed in a ballet class. We laughed at little Neil from Merseyside, so chirpy and full of beans. We see them again at 14 years old -- Susie is almost completely withdrawn and Neil isn't smiling anymore. At 21 Susie is a chain-smoking cynic but more open, while Neil is a drifter who dropped out of Aberdeen University after one term, criticising his parents for leaving him unprepared for life...

What happened? Why are our expectations so disconnected from what we see? What is static and true about their personalities and what is not? Do some of them just get along better with Michael Apted, or do they inwardly resent being interviewed at all and therefore represent themselves in a better/poorer light?

Did the documentarian himself drag in preconceived notions about them and edit the film to match the story HE wanted to tell? There were a few things I noticed:

NONE of the parents were shown except one -- Symon's mother. Symon is half black and attended a charity school until he was 13. He didn't know his father. Symon mentioned his mother had suffered from depression and at that point Apted chose to show footage of Symon's white mother leaving the house and going down the street. This smacked of overstatement to me -- was it necessary to make a point that his father was black AND absent? Why weren't any of the other "absentee" parents shown, the ones who exported their small children to be minded at boarding schools?

The three upper-class boarding school boys were seated together on a couch at 7, 14, and 21 in exactly the same order. It wasn't so much that the order was the same, but John, Andrew, and Charles were unavoidably compared to each other -- John and Charles were at the opposite ends of the political spectrum and Andrew was in-between. Whether that arrangement was just coincidental or by design I have yet to find out (maybe not), but it definitely stuck in my head.

They threw a party for the kids in 1963 (the film was released in 1964), but didn't bring the group together for 14 years. They're shown the footage of themselves at 7 and 14, and as they watch they groan and cover their faces or laugh at themselves. Later they're filmed chatting together, smoking and drinking, many with seemingly nothing in common other than being subjects for the documentaries. Are they pretending to be nice to each other in front of the camera so they don't appear to be snobs or uncaring? Would these people speak at all if they'd met on the street? Did any of them agree to be filmed at 21 so they could defend whatever negative impressions they might've given at 7 or 14?

Time took a snapshot of them at three stages of their lives, and whether time or Michael Apted portrayed them fairly or accurately is something not any one person can answer... maybe not even the participants themselves. At 21 most of them are excruciatingly vague, and visibly struggle with their answers. They're self-conscious. They're unsure. They're introspective. I think they remind me of myself, except they've got the added pressure of the camera. I don't view this series as a extended film, per se, even though it's exclusively about these 14 people. I also don't think it's simply meant to answer questions about them, telling us everything about them so we know them as we know our circle of friends. It feels intimate, and I do think the audience cares about what happens to them, but I see it as more about life in general and how we conduct ourselves at those ages. Although, a camera can follow you every single day for a year, but ultimately you show what you want, when you want. A camera can't intuit anything -- it can only record, and the audience infers the rest.

Are these points in time being cruel or kind or honest to them? Do their late 1970's hairstyles, clothes, and carefully chosen words give us a truer picture of who they are than the unself-conscious kids of 1963? I await the next installment with equal parts anticipation and dread. I want to know how they change between 21 and 28, but 28 is closer to my age and thus a more relevant state of self-examination.