This column was first published as “Documentary series puts ‘reality’ to the test” in JWeekly. Click here to read it there.
“Give me the child until he is 7 and I will give you the man.” This Jesuit quote has been playing in my head in a nonstop loop for the past several months. There are two reasons for this, but the most important is the fact that my eldest child is graduating from high school and going off to college in the fall. So I guess in this case it should be, “Give me the child until he is 171⁄2 …”
The other reason I — a former Jewish educator — have been hearing the voice of St. Ignatius Loyola over and over is because we are due for a new installment of “Up.” For the sake of those unfamiliar with the series, allow me to indulge in explaining what the Jesuits have to do with television, why I bother to follow a series that airs a new episode only once every seven years, and what all this has to do with my college-bound son.
In 1964, a group of filmmakers for Granada Television in Great Britain interviewed 14 children, all 7 years old and from a variety of geographical and socioeconomic backgrounds, in an attempt to get a glimpse at what the film termed “the executive and the shop steward in the year 2000.” The creators of the first program, “Seven Up,” knew that British society was on the verge of major shifts at the time, and they were curious to capture a snapshot of those in British society who ultimately would be most affected by the changing times. “Give me a child until he is 7…” the announcer says at the opening of the program.
But what the filmmakers initially planned as a single, politically minded half-hour television program commenting on the British class system ended up becoming a monumental work following the lives of these children over the course of the next five decades. The young researcher from the original team became the successful director Michael Apted, and it is he who has gone back to interview these children every seven years, ultimately creating a body of work commenting on — some would say revealing — the core, existential essence of life, in what many believe to be an unparalleled achievement in the history of documentary film. It’s reality TV taken to a whole other level — in a good way.
So now it’s 2012, time for “56 Up.” The lucky British are already watching it, with the first of its three parts having aired there on May 14. As usual, we on the other side of the pond are going to have to wait a while until we can (legally) see it here. If you think enduring a show’s 4-month-long hiatus is hard, it might be impossible to imagine the agony of waiting well over half a decade.
And during those intervening years, our everyday lives go on just as do those of the people profiled in the “Up” series. What I love about the programs is that they allow us the rare gift of seeing a human life unfold and develop over half a century right in front of our eyes. Each interview of each subject in each of the films could be viewed as a pedestrian question-and-answer session about the elements that make up a person’s life — work, family, love, money, religion and the like. One could think it all somewhat prosaic.
But taken in together, especially with an appreciation for how well the films are made, the lives of these people affect both your heart and your mind, making the type of impression that only poetry can. You see all of the film’s subjects struggle to find their places in the world and figure out what gives their lives meaning. It’s like looking in the mirror.
As my son gets ready to leave home and I get ready to let go of his childhood, I try to comfort myself by remembering that, despite the challenges of daily family life, my husband and I have done our best to help him become the best person he can be. Ignatius was right — by the time my son was 7, he probably was, to a great extent, the wonderful human being he is and will surely continue to be. But thankfully for us, we have enjoyed the gift of an additional decade just to make sure.
© 2012 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.