Movie Review: “56 Up” – Feels Like A Test

Written by Jasmine Steffler March 08, 2013

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Whatever your age, you have probably at some point looked into the expanse of the future lying before you and wondered, “where will I be in 5/10/15 years?”.”56 Up”, the 8th installment in a series that started in England in 1964, asks that exact question, and then waits around to see what really happens. This social experiment, unsettling to watch at certain points, checks in with the same group of people every 7 years. The film provides an interesting commentary on how life rolls madly on- no matter who you are, no matter where you are, and no matter how old you are.

“Life isn’t here to regret, life is here to live”

What’s unique about this documentary is that it gives a portrayal of 56 years of several people’s lives in an unmediated way that we don’t get to experience in our own lives. For the most part, we see the people in front of us as they are at this moment; we don’t see the intervening events that have made them who they are and we don’t see how they developed. In “56 Up”, we are given the opportunity to see all the nuances of someone’s character at every age of their life. This seems completely fair and completely unfair simultaneously. These people are given the opportunity to see themselves grow and change in a way that a lot of us are not. However, they are also burdened with the self consciousness that comes with evaluating the extent of one’s life, not only every 7 years but every time that they recollect their participation in the experiment. The documentary decides whether to frame moments negatively or positively, thus taking away the participants agency to freely interpret their own lives.

 “I think we’re the happiest when we aren’t aware of it”

Of course, some of the participants are able to handle this burden better than others. Tony, the most boisterous participant, holds nothing back from the camera. He’s comfortable talking about his shortcomings and mistakes and doesn’t see the camera as an enemy, but as a device that will affirm his journey. Surprisingly or not, Tony is the only participant who doesn’t seem to partake in a drastic change throughout his life. He’s the same energetic, talkative boy while driving his cab as he is on the playground. Conversely, Neil, who at 7 years old is extremely energetic and talkative, becomes intensely self-conscious and distressed as he ages. Whether the experiment has anything to do with his personality change is debatable, but regardless, he doesn’t see the camera as welcoming but rather as a probing annoyance that he would rather not open up to. Neil suggests in one of his interviews that happiness and fulfillment exists for him when he’s not aware of it. Obviously watching a film about himself makes him aware of everything, so hence his perpetual discomfort.

Throughout the various interviews, there is a lot of debate about whether the film series succeeds in providing a full picture of a life. After all, the clips offer only a small window into someone’s existence. Personally, I don’t see this as a severe flaw in either the experiment or the documentary. We only ever perceive small segments of people’s lives. The main issue with an experiment like this is that people are participating that don’t want to be participating. They are pushed into this series as 7 year old children and most feel obliged to continue. While some participants are encouraged by the series, and use it as a way to measure their progress in life, others feel completely alienated by it. There is no way of knowing how an experiment like this will effect someone until years down the road.

“56 Up” is certainly as captivating as the previews suggest, but I think there is a danger in being too captivated by it. These are people’s lives after all, and to say someone’s life is good or bad is unfair and likely inaccurate. Even if I reunite with these people every 7 years for an interview, I can’t give a full assessment of them. The movie succeeds in asking the juicy questions like “are you happy?” and “have you achieved what you wanted to?”, but there is a certain heartbreak that comes when these people have to answer. They seem fearful that their responses have somehow come up short. This documentary seems to want to ascribe more or less value to the lives of individuals who didn’t ask to be evaluated.

My Rating: 5/10

 

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