The eighth film in the Up series, 56 Up, premieres this month in the UK. At seven-year intervals since 1964’s Seven Up!, director Michael Apted has interviewed a majority of the original fourteen children from varying economic and social backgrounds about changes in their lives, careers, families, viewpoints and hopes. (49 Up was broadcast on POV in 2007).
The series has provided an integral and culturally significant longitudinal study of ordinary lives in action — at once — personal and political.
In light of the premiere of latest installment, we compiled eight extraordinary documentaries whose stories have unfolded over many years, sometimes decades, and where time became a vital component of the unfolding narrative.
Up Series (1964-present)
Originally conceived as a one-off project, the Up series is about the pains that afflict us at different stages in life. Inspired by the Jesuit maxim, “Give me the child until he is seven and I will show you the man,” Seven Up! was intended to demonstrate the causal link of the childrens’ socio-economic backgrounds to their resulting (dreams of) futures.
The series has since transformed into the most popular study of its kind as it tracks down the participants of the original film as they realize their dreams (or as they don’t) and their evolving viewpoints.
Tarnation tackles themes of growing up, but stands out in a field of autobiographical documentaries.
Through home movie footage and audio created and collected over 20 years, we gain access to Jonathan Caouette’s life, his mentally ill mother (who received a battery of electroshock therapy in her pre-teen years), and his experiences of growing up gay.
Roger Ebert, in his review of the film, compares it to the Up series:
“[The Up series] makes it clear … that the child is indeed the father of the man; every one of its subjects is already, at 7, a version of the adult they would become. Tarnation is like Caouette’s version of that process, in which the young boy, play-acting, dressing up, dramatizing the trauma in his life, is able to deal with it.”
The film was a festival hit in 2004, but was also famously pieced together with a budget of $218.32 using Apple’s free iMovie software, heralding an age of self-documentation and easy access to professional-quality post-production.
The Paradise Lost series (1996-2012)
The Paradise Lost series is an examination of the trial and case of three teenagers accused of the murder and sexual mutilation of three boys in Arkansas. The film documents a media bias during the trial and debunks much of the evidence made against the teens.
The first film, from 1996, was widely credited for bringing in concerned viewers and celebrities who became advocates for the release of the “West Memphis Three.”
The subsequent films followed the progress in the case, with the third film being broadcast in 2012, after a legal victory, the release of the West Memphis Three in August 2011.
Winnebago Man (2009)
In the early days of YouTube, outtakes from a 1980s R.V. infomercial quickly became a viral sensation. In the videos, Jack Rebney complains and curses about various aspects of the shoot — the dialogue, the heat and the crew, among other irritants. Has time changed the man forever to be known as The Angriest Man in the World? In Winnebago Man, director Ben Steinbauer is successful in tracking down Rebney and the subject gives himself over to candid interviews about his anger and coming to terms with Internet celebrity.
French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard said every film, in a way, is a documentary of its actors. Richard Linklater’s 12-year project is not a documentary, but it’s hard not to think of it as one in Godard’s terms.
In 2002, Linklater started filming 6-year-old Ellar Salmon with the intention of following him being raised by his two divorced parents (played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette). Production is set to be completed in 2014, when Salmon will be 18.
The Children of Golzow may hold the record for the longest documentary to be continuously in production, but Boyhood could challenge the record for a fiction film.
In 1983, Pamela Yates went to Guatemala to film a war between the country’s military and indigenous populations. The resulting film, When the Mountains Tremble, inspired an international lawyer, some 20 years later, to search footage of the 1983 film — Was there was anything in the film to implicate General Efrain Rios Montt, the subject of a mounting investigation for his involvement in the indigenous Mayan genocide in the 1980s?
In Granito (POV 2012), the documentary resulting from the investigation, a Spanish court sees outtakes from Yates’s original film, demonstrating Montt’s awareness of the atrocities that besieged the nation during its civil war. He was recently indicted for genocide.
A Film Unfinished (2010)
After World War II, reels from the unreleased propaganda film Ghetto were discovered in East German vaults. The footage showed the good life of Jewish urbanites in a Warsaw ghetto and it became an important record that researchers and historians used for decades thereafter.
But in 1998, another reel was discovered that exposed the film’s fictionalization. A Film Unfinished interviews surviving members and presents inconsistencies between the reels, challenging notions of historical truths produced by documentary footage and raising a light to how documentaries not only provide a point of view of a past time but also how time braids with the living record.
The Children of Golzow (1961-2007)
The Up series inevitably inspired a plethora of spin-offs in other countries — Japan, Australia, South Africa and the United States. But one of the most exhaustive and interesting is Germany’s The Golzow Saga, which pre-dates Seven Up!. The series of films followed roughly 18 subjects between 1961 and 2007, and holds the Guinness World Record for the longest production period for a film.
Originally proposed as a project to be “the portrait of a generation growing up in a socialistic society: schools, teachers, vocational training, university, work, relationships, children,” the films follow these themes among key historical backdrops, such as Germany’s unification.
Of course, there are many other “then and now” documentaries that could have made this list.
One to look out for is American Promise, a future POV film that tracks the lives of two black boys educated in predominantly white private schools and could be expected to say much about the urban American education.
A trailer is online.
Which “then and now” documentaries have blown your mind? Let us know in the comments.
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