Sunday, November 20, 2011

Movie – 35 Up (1991) and the “Up” Series

35 Up is one of a series of documentaries that have come out every seven years that chronicle the lives of fourteen people.  This post will discuss the series as a whole, with a focus on parts of 35 Up. 

With the tons of “reality” shows on TV purporting to be views into people’s lives, why should you bother to watch any of these movies?  Because they actually are real.  In addition, if small things that occur over a few months of filming one of those shows seem big to you, imagine seeing the changes that occur in people’s lives over five decades.   That is what these movies accomplish.

In 1964 the British documentary Seven Up! was shown on TV.  It consisted of a set of interviews with 14 different children, all of whom were seven years old.  The filmmakers deliberately chose children from different socio-economic backgrounds.  Their goal was to prove the British prejudice that one’s “place in society” was predetermined by your family’s class and background.  (It includes a scene where three of the seven year old boys from rich families rattle off all the proper schools they are going to attend, up to and including Oxford.)  After interviewing them separately, they brought all 14 together at the same playground and just let them be seven year olds.

Michael Apted was a researcher on this program and was one of the two people responsible for picking the children.  There was no intent to turn this into a series, but seven years later Apted went back and interviewed the kids again.  That movie was 7 Plus Seven [aka 14 Up] (1970) and he directed it.  He went back a third time for 21 [aka 21 Up] in 1977.  In between directing commercial movies (i.e. 1980’s Coal Miner’s Daughter, 1999’s The World is Not Enough, 2010’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) Apted has continued to come back to these people every seven years and has released the movies 28 Up (1985), 35 Up (1991), 42 Up (1998), 49 Up (2005), and he has 56 Up coming out in 2012.

As the series went along it shifted away from trying to prove outdated notions of British snobbery and instead has focused more on the personal experiences of these people over their lives.

35 Up was the first one of these films that I saw.  It was my introduction to the series and that is why I have chosen it to represent all of them.

Not all fourteen people have participated in all of the films.  Some of them refuse one time, but come back the next.  Some have gotten criticism from audiences for the opinions they have expressed and have sometimes chosen to skip a movie or two.  By and large, though, Apted has done an amazing job at getting them to continue to participate, including one who moved to the U.S. and one who moved to Australia.  Apted even tracked down one man who was homeless at the time of filming 28 Up.

This man illustrates what is so compelling about this series.  In addition to presenting new interviews with these people, each movie also interweaves their responses to questions from prior movies in the series.  It allows Apted to show whether their lives ended up going where they thought they would, as well as getting their now older perspectives on their younger selves.  In 35 Up we see earlier scenes of this man as a full of life seven year old.  By 21 Up he had dropped out of college and was living in bad conditions.  He was also showing signs of mental health issues.  At 28 he was homeless in Scotland.  35 Up then shows us that he has found a home on the Shetland Islands and is trying his hand working at a local theater putting on shows.  By 42 Up he has received some help from another of the fourteen participants, is living in London, and is involved in local politics.  By the time of 49 Up he holds a position in the government of the Cumbria district in Northwest England.

Other participants include a boy who was from a farmer’s family in a tiny village who went on to become a nuclear physicist in the U.S.  Of the three rich boys who all said they would go to Oxford, one did and became a barrister.  In 35 Up he said he was participating only because he wanted to bring attention to the charities he supports and his plight of trying to recover some ancestral lands in Bulgaria now that the fall of the Soviet Union had opened up Eastern Europe.  Another has tried to sue Apted for continuing to show a photo of him in movies after he had stopped participating in new interviews.

Of the fourteen children, ten were boys and four were girls.  Since this was the sixties and early seventies, the girls’ interviews at seven and fourteen tended to focus more on what they hoped their husbands and families would be like.  Apted has said he regrets not getting more from them when they were children on potential careers they might have liked. 

One thing that was specifically addressed in 35 Up is how several of them had lost their parents in the seven years since 28 Up.  Each of them was now midway through their thirties, dealing with family mortality, and had more common sense views of their lives.

This series has been named one of the best documentary series ever made by pretty much everyone who has ever put together a list.  Roger Ebert even called it “an inspired, even noble, use of the film medium.”  35 Up made a huge impact on me because it was completely original in my experience.

You have to remember: this was 1991.  Mtv would not debut The Real World until the next year.  This is the show credited with kicking off the TV craze of reality shows.  Sure, there had been the TV documentary miniseries An American Family in 1973 and the 1977 movie Who are the Debolts (and Where Did They Get 19 Kids?) that had entered the public consciousness, but I had not seen either of them, so 35 Up was completely new to me.

The series has been highly influential on other documentary filmmakers.  Series similar to this are ongoing in Australia, Belgium, Canada, The Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, The Netherlands, South Africa, Sweden (which started in 1973 and is the next longest running series), The U.S.S.R. (and the subsequent countries that formed after it broke up), and The U.S.  Writer/director Richard Linklater (Before Sunrise, The School of Rock) has been shooting a fictional movie since 2002 about a boy who ages from six years old to eighteen years old.  Every year for a few weeks Linklater gets back together with the boy, as well as Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, who play the boy’s divorced parents.  They film another segment then go their separate ways until the next year.  It is planned to be released in 2015.

Unless your brains have been entirely turned to mush by the exploits of the people on the various “reality” shows you’ve been watching, then I highly recommend the Up series as a way to see what real stories are about.  If you have refused to watch those shows, and have been avoiding this series out of fear that it is similar, please take the time to watch at least one of these films.  You’ll see that you have nothing to fear from them, except trying to find the next one of the series to watch.

Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

[Note – you can see all the Movies by Numbers, as well as get some hints on what’s to come, at this link.]

The "Up" Box Set


  1. Great review! I am a huge film buff myself, and it's always good to see another blogger. This film looks quite interesting, i'll check it out in the future!

    You have a new follower!

  2. @Matt S - Thanks for the kind words. I've bookmarked your blog - Matt & the Art of Motion Pictures - and I will be taking a look at it.