You don't usually hear a journalist ask questions. They're edited out or written around. But over the years, documentary filmmaker Michael Apted has not cut out the footage where he pressed a veteran couple about whether the spark is still there, or asked a formerly homeless and mentally troubled 56-year-old why he has never sustained a romance. Apted has raised the specter of the natural cruelty of documenting human life—and he's also embodied a continuously satisfying proxy who's finding out what you want to know but would be too afraid to ask.
Apted's series of documentary movies began in 1964 as a portrait of a group of 7-year-olds from all over England, selected by Apted to represent the extremes of a classist society. At the time, Apted was a recent Cambridge graduate. His Canadian director, Paul Almond, wanted a softer approach, but Apted chose the 14 subjects because, as he said, "I wanted to make a nasty piece of work about these kids who have it all, and these other kids who have nothing." Some kids boasted of reading the Financial Times, while others were abandoned and living in group homes. After the original film, titled Seven Up!, Apted became director and continued to follow the original group of subjects every seven years. 56 Up is the new release. Apted himself is almost 72 years old.
You don't need to have watched any of the prior films to get into 56 Up, maybe the most satisfying of all the films so far. Its tone is calm. The subjects are comfortable with themselves. They mostly despise the aftermath of Thatcher England. They also speak openly now about the oppressive presence of the film series itself. For every film after Seven Up!, filming was voluntary for the subjects, and since 28 Up, they've been paid to appear and received a portion of any prize money the film wins. There have been dropouts and comebacks; a man in 56 Up admits he's only back to promote his band. (It seems like a nice British Americana band.) "As time has passed, they've become much less interested in what I want them to do," Apted told Radio Times last year. The eloquence of their defiance is finally up to Apted's challenge: They are his equals now, and the series has become fully a dialogue. For those of us who've watched over the years, it's more than enough to take into the hibernation of the silent time to come: the next seven years of waiting.