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NYC Film Festivals

NYFF: Apted Tells New York What's Up

Nearly at its halfway point, the New York Film Festival continues tonight with 49 Up, the latest in Michael Apted's documentary series covering the lives of 12 English men and women, mainly through interviews conducted every seven years (two of the original 14 have dropped out since the project's beginning). The first film came in 1964 under Paul Almond's direction, when Apted was an uncredited researcher; since then, Apted's career has grown from BBC documentaries to major-budget productions of varying worth (from Coal Miner's Daughter to The World Is Not Enough), but he returns faithfully every seven years.

The premise -- watch the entire lives of 14 human beings in real time -- is irresistible, but dependent as he is on the cooperation of his subjects, Apted's deferential interview approach undercuts the potential power and implications of his footage. In ignoring the changing politics and social ramifications of the time spanned, the films reduce nearly all human lives to a fairly mundane arc: Apted rarely ventures beyond inquiries into love and personal finances.

49 Up is the most self-critical film in the series, as multiple interviewees tell Apted how grueling and generally unpleasant it is to be interviewed every seven years. It was odd, then, to see subject Tony Walker by Apted's side at the New York Film Festival press conference for the film, though perhaps not surprising; in addition to driving a cab, Walker has a minor acting career and ambitions of making a play out of his life. Accordingly, his contributions were upbeat to the point of hyperbole. When asked how he felt about being included in the series, he replied, "For me it's been a privilege, obviously, and a unique part of our life to be part of British TV history."

Apted was more modest. When asked by The Reeler if he ever felt too constrained or polite from the necessity of maintaining good relations with his subjects, he said he wasn't surprised; the question was a familiar one. "I don't really have a choice," Apted said. "If you do longitudinal work, you have to behave yourself because you want to go back. And some of them do want to see the film before it's locked up. I'll argue with them about things, and if they insist on not showing stuff, there's not much I can do."

Familiar, too, were criticisms that the films, in foregrounding personal lives, do little justice to the politics of the time. The films were originally intended to show changing class systems in the UK, but that purpose has changed: "There's still a class system," Apted said. "It's still there and rearing its head, but it isn't as claustrophobic and suffocating as it was in those times."

So with no need to spotlight class systems, what about the changing political times? "I've received some criticism for not doing that, so I did it in 42 Up," the director said. "We shot 42 Up about the time that [Princess] Diana died, so I asked them all what they thought about all that, and I never used it. It seems to me that what's great about this is that it's not people speaking about politics, it's people living politics, and nothing's more vivid than Tony's decision to go and leave England because of the state of the country rather than him sitting there and pontificating about it or someone else moaning about Tony Blair or whatever. The close-up of their faces is really the real currency." -- Vadim Rizov

Posted at October 5, 2006 7:18 AM

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