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Wednesday, October 10, 2007


Not sure how many of you like documentaries, but this may be my all-time favorite. Judd and I saw 35-up in college and fell in love with it immediately.

In Book of Fate, I wanted to show what it's like when life doesn't turn out how you planned. I have to believe this series beat some of those ideas into me. So go rent the full series from the start. Well worth it.

'7-Up' times 7 equals a complex look at midlife

By Peter Johnson, USA TODAY

When 7-Up, Michael Apted's documentary about kids from diverse backgrounds in England, first aired in 1964, childhood friends Sue, Jackie and Lynn voiced aspirations that probably were typical of working-class girls at the time: to find decent jobs and good husbands and make a go of it.

But in subsequent 7-Up films, in which Apted checked in with his subjects every seven years, showing flashbacks at each stage, the girls' initial half-dreamy, half-realistic hopes had been sharply altered by life's harsh realities.

By 42, Sue and Jackie were struggling single mothers. But Lynn, whose ambition had been to work at Woolworth's, had become a librarian.

That's the way life works, says Apted, whose seventh installment, 49-Up, airs tonight at 9 ET/PT on PBS' POV (times may vary; check local listings). "You can't have life all laid out and just walk through it."

In 49-Up, Sue seems happy, having finally found stability with Glen. Jackie lives in Scotland with her three boys. She suffers from rheumatoid arthritis but says wistfully that her public-housing neighbors remind her of the close-knit world of her youth in London's East End. Lynn, now a mother of two, is devastated that her job as a children's librarian — her life's work — may be abolished.

She complains bitterly on camera to Apted about how painful it is to have his cameras intrude on her. "It's too much." Jackie gets angry at him, too, calling some of his questions "insulting." Apted, off-camera, gently soothes her. "I like it when you shout at me."

Apted says maintaining a documentarian's emotional distance is virtually impossible with a project like this because he has known his subjects for more than four decades — "longer than I've known most people."

"I had to give up long ago the idea that this was some sort of objective, cool-eyed approach," he says. "What they do — putting their lives up for examination every seven years — is a very brave thing to do, and it gets more emotionally draining as the series continues." (Two bowed out, 12 remain.)

Apted, whose feature films include Coal Miner's Daughter, Gorillas in the Mist and last year's Amazing Grace, checks in with his Up subjects once a year and, when he can, invites them to the film opening "so I'm not just asking them for something, I'm giving them something." But otherwise, he tries to keep his distance. "Some freshness, some objectivity is good."

Apted, 66, shot the first 7-Up when he was 22 and his subjects were youngsters. But as the years progressed, "our age differences diminished. I'm 15 years older than them, and 15 years can be a lifetime when you're in your 20s and 30s, but when you get to be our age, it's almost collegial."

49-Up is "made with great affection. There's a tenderness to it which is wonderful," says Simon Kilmurry, POV's executive director. "One of the greatest achievements of the film is that you have grown old with these people and you grow up with them."

Apted says he relates most to Nick, a farmer's son who, at age 7, wanted to learn about the moon. He's now an engineering professor in Wisconsin. "We both left our roots and tried to build our careers here."

Apted is impressed by Tony, a would-be jockey at 7 who worked most of his life as a London cabby and now has a vacation home in Spain. "He's done pretty well for himself and his family."

Apted draws no grand conclusions, but "one thing I've learned is that a 7-year-old personality probably doesn't change that much. If you're an extrovert at age 7, you're probably still going to be that, and vice versa."

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