56 Up

I learned about this documentary through watching Life Itself , the ode to Robert Ebert.He was apparently quite a champion of this series and I was curious to find out why.

In 1964, the movie’s producers assembled 14 “diverse” (meaning 1 biracial kid, 4 girls, and 2 kids from the country) seven year olds and asked them a whole bunch of questions about what it was like being them, and what they saw for themselves in the future. The premise was taken from a Jesuit motto “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” It was thought that at the time that these 7 year-olds would be heralding civilization into the next millennium (ie, they’d be grown up and leading us into the year 2000). The film has checked back in with the group every 7 years since, with this last installment, the group at age 56, filming in 2012 and airing in 2013.

What we get to watch is a decades-long social science experiment. These are very much ordinary people updating us on the minutiae of their lives. What have they become? Are they fullfilling their own prophecies? Living up to their potential? The director makes no bones about his original thesis – he assumed that each child’s social class would predetermine their future.The kids were apparently selected from different backgrounds (though like I said, they all seemed to come from the same end of the colour wheel). And the director himself admits that he didn’t anticipate “feminism” – he deliberately only followed 4 girls because it was sort of thought – who cares? They were never supposed to “become” anything anyway.The children were not held under contract so every 7 years since, they can volunteer (or not) to do the update. Though many express apprehension and sometimes even animosity toward the series, all but one have continued to make appearances.

Watching this, I wish I had started at the beginning. We see glimpses of previous interviews, we see the child, and the middle-aged adult, but I would have liked to have seen more. Each person presents us just a slice of their true picture, but we do pick up on divorce, unemployment, miscarriage, aging and ailing parents, the struggles of parenthood, and everyone’s changing (or static) politics.

The original hypothesis being that their life paths should have been set at birth has proven surprisingly (depressingly) true – most who started in the working class have remained there. But the interesting bit is not judging their success by the class which they inhabit, but rather by watching them judge it for themselves, over time. Are they happy? Satisfied? Do they feel they’ve wasted their lives? Contentment spreads over all the classes, as does doubt and regret.

I won’t summarize each of the subjects because that’s the point of the movie. One who really caught my eye though, I believe his name was Neil, was a sweet and charismatic little boy, not the one you might have guessed would grow up with mental health issues, only to battle thoughts of suicide, and spend time both jobless and homeless, but that’s what this film uncovers. These are not always pretty truths, but that’s exactly what we need to see. A little bit of reality before “reality TV” was ever a thing.

The exciting thing about watching this rather banal update is that it makes you question yourself. You wonder what you would have been telling the producer when you were 7. What job did you believe your future self would hold? I think when I was seven I wanted to be a teacher, which rather disgusts me now. My nephew (still a few years shy of 7) wants to be a green dragon when he grows up. Did your seven year old self think you’d ever get married? Or travel? See outerspace? Work a dead end job? Be a single parent? Are we failing our inner child’s dreams for us? Have we settled? Should we be happy with the compromises we’ve inevitably made? Are we learning from our mistakes? How do we really measure happiness, and what exactly is “success”?

Whatever experiment this started out as, it’s now become a question of existential proportions. And while I enjoyed watching this, I wished I was watching it with someone, maybe even some of you assholes, because I wanted to ask you these questions. Who did you think you would be when you were seven? Who do you think you’ll become in the next seven years? And at what point in your life can we really take stock, and declare it a success or a failure?

This movie is available to watch on Netflix.

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