NEW YORK — Documentaries, at their best, are snapshots of a moment in time. What comes before, and what comes after, is generally beyond the purview of the films. Filmmakers tell their stories, and then leave them behind.
And then there is Michael Apted, now in his 50th year of following the lives of 14 British men and women, whom he first selected to appear onscreen in 1964 for “7 UP!” when they were each 7 years old. “Give me a child until he is seven,” went the Jesuit maxim favored by the film, “and I will give you the man.” The 7-year-olds are now, astonishingly, 56, and still allowing Apted to peek into their lives every seven years, with the just-released “56 UP,” the eighth installment in the series.
“It’s like going to therapy,” said Tony Walker, a London taxi driver and one of Apted’s subjects. “I hear Michael’s voice, and I start to talk to him, and I forget the cameras are there.” A lifetime before the cameras has acclimated Walker and the other “UP” children to speaking candidly for public consumption, but the prospect of appearing onscreen remains terrifying. “I never watch it with people. I’m too weak. I watch it always on my own,” said Walker.
“56 UP,” like each previous installation, documents a process of recalibration, of reconstructing an entire fabulously detailed house while simultaneously adding on a new wing. “I begin to get a sense when I talk to them [of] who’s going to need the most attention, who’s had the most interesting seven years,” Apted said. “Because it has to edit itself, in a way.” Apted keeps up irregularly with his subjects, inviting them to the premieres of his other films and to his sets. But he really only catches up with them once the cameras are set to roll. Decades of experience have taught him to eschew what he calls the “car floor” method of practicing for interviews, where interviewees’ first and best responses are left unfilmed on the car floor as they drive around talking.
“I trust Michael implicitly,” said Walker. “He knows the power he holds. He knows the trust on a reciprocal basis that we’ve given him ourselves. Not just me, all of us.” Apted gently disagrees, seeing the power as residing primarily with his subjects. “I am, in a sense, over a barrel, because I want to go back. If I am doing a normal documentary, I can lie to you, and say I’ll never use that,” Apted said. “It puts them in a powerful position, in a way, not that they necessarily exercise it, or even fully realize it.”
Apted describes what he shares with his subjects as a “blood link.” And Walker is familiar enough with the director’s oeuvre to reel off a nearly complete list of Apted’s films, and express his continued horror that Apted, the director of “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “The World Is Not Enough,” turned down the opportunity to direct “The Color of Money”: “I said, ‘Paul Newman! Tom Cruise! Are you mad?’ ”
And yet, as both Apted and his subjects realize, the film is ultimately his story, not theirs. “I’ve always had a bone to pick with people who say there’s something pure about documentaries, there’s something honest about them,” said Apted. “They’re no more honest than anything else. Every edit I make is a judgment.”
Even the truth is only partial, and Apted’s subjects, savvier than ever about media manipulation, express their dissatisfaction in “56” about the inevitably distorting process of being filmed. Nick, a college professor and perhaps the most self-aware of Apted’s subjects, tells him in the film that what he has made is “a picture of Everyman. . . . It’s not an absolute accurate picture of me, but it’s a picture of somebody.” No portrait can ever be complete, and many, if not most, of Apted’s subjects would likely agree with Walker that “when I see these programs, it just tears something, it opens up all my wounds, and it shows me bare.”
Apted began as a researcher on the original “7 UP!,” selecting the film’s subjects from the class-driven extremes of British society — “I was missing out on the middle class,” he observed ruefully — before taking over as director for the second installment. “What’s embarrassing about it, it took us five years to figure out to go back and do it again,” said Apted. “Why didn’t I go and do a similar thing in Northern Ireland? Can you imagine what that would have been like? To have gone into a country at war and have done a ‘7 UP!’ there?”
If there’s a theme to this latest installment, it’s an acceptance of life as it is, regrets and all. “I could see that those that had families, and grandchildren, had somehow found peace with their life,” Apted said. “It had given them a kind of . . . barrier against the rigors of the world, which is a tough place to be.” Apted’s “ace in the hole,” as he calls it, is his treasure trove of past footage of his subjects. We see Neil, at 56, in a suit and tie, arguing as a district councillor in the northwest of England, then quasi-homeless at 28, then dancing joyously at age 7. Each life here contains multitudes. And sometimes the past intersects with the present in surprising fashion. In one of the most remarkable moments of “56,” Apted brings Walker back to the site of the dilapidated dog track where he used to work as a runner, to discover none other than the Olympic Stadium risen in its place. “That is a gift from the Almighty,” said Apted, a hint of awe in his voice at the unexpected serendipity.
Apted, 15 years older than his subjects, envisions future entries as potentially more riven by conflict and distress than “56,” and by the eventual intrusion of mortality. “I’m going through a period of panic about my life now. Is work going to dry up? Will I have enough money to be able to retire?” said Apted. “And I’m imagining this may still happen to them. That this may have been a little plateau in the great scheme of things.”Saul Austerlitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.