Poignant “63 Up” documentary follows subjects from childhood into old age

The “Up” series follows the lives of 14 British people throughout their lives. (Courtesy BritBox)

BY GABE HERMAN | The latest installment of the “Up” documentary series, which has followed the lives of a group of English people from childhood into old age, opens this week in Greenwich Village.

A new film in the series is made every seven years to update the subjects’ lives, and the latest one is “63 Up.” It debuts on Wednesday, Nov. 27, at the Film Forum, at 209 W. Houston St., and includes its typically poignant look at how people change, and remain the same, over time.

The series follows the lives of 14 people. The original intent was to choose subjects from a range of socio-economic backgrounds, and with the assumption that the class a person is born into determines his or her future.

The first film, “7 Up,” was made in 1964. Every film since then, starting with “14 Up,” has been directed by Michael Apted, who was a researcher on the original film and was involved in choosing the group of children.

The film’s premise was taken from a Jesuit saying: “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.”

Many movies try to tell the story of peoples’ lives over time, but in this film there is no need for special effects or creative storytelling: we see the people age, seven years at a time from 7 to 63 years old, as each person’ story is told and updated in 15-minute segments.

“63 Up” opens Nov. 27 at the Film Forum. (Courtesy BritBox)

There is Tony the London cabbie, Nick the university professor, and Lynn the children’s librarian. There are divorces, illnesses, family deaths, and marriages. Interviews along the way show worries at various stages of life, from daily concerns to bigger life issues, and we then see how those lives have progressed and matured and taken unexpected turns.

The series has received much acclaim over the years. Roger Ebert once included the series on his list of the ten best films of all time, and it was named the best documentary ever on a 2005 British list by Channel 4.

The “Up” series has gained a following worldwide, including in America, but the British director Apted said the series seems to have extra significance for English audiences. “I think they possess it more than the Americans do,” said Apted, “because the language is fairly different about education, and lots of things.”

Apted said he spends little time with the film subjects in between shooting every seven years, as a way to get fresh reactions in the interviews. For the movie, each subject is filmed for about two days and the interview can take over six hours.

Director Michael Apted. (Courtesy BritBox)

But Apted tries not to get into a rhythm when making the films, despite having made the series through many decades. “That’s what you mustn’t do,” he said, and he added there are always new issues that appear in people’s lives to keep things fresh.

Apted also tries to keep the subjects happy, by giving them the chance to take out parts that they’re uncomfortable with, out of respect and also to keep them coming back for the next installment. “I have to, it is a partnership,” he said. “On the whole, we come to an understanding.”

He said the nature versus nurture question is complicated, and sometimes you can see how a life event or situation affects a person over time. “Sometimes things stick out,” he said, like only having one parent, or other family issues. “You can see how their life is changing because of what’s happening.”

Apted wants to keep making the series as long as possible. “I’d at least love to get them to 70,” he said. “Who knows, I might go on until I’m 100.”

The unique nature of the series makes it uncharted territory for each new film and next step in the process, and Apted has noted that the series is linked with his own life. “I’m always amazed that it’s still going on,” he said. “No one’s ever tried it.”