One of the greatest projects in television history and, as it turns out, in feature-film history, too began 49 years ago as a black-and-white TV documentary about the lives of 14 British 7-year-olds first seen enjoying a day at a zoo. Some were posh and some were working-class. Ten were boys and four were girls. (Diversity was not quite as diverse back then: All except the biracial boy named Symon were white.) The documentary team wanted to test the thesis that the random luck of being born into one class or another shapes a British child's future, whether in limitations or opportunities. The team was also inspired by the Jesuit motto ''Give me a child until he is 7, and I will give you the man.'' All 14 children had their futures ahead of them in 1964. What, the voice-over narrator wondered, would England look like in the year 2000?
The program was called Seven Up! And every seven years since, for nearly half a century now, filmmaker Michael Apted has returned from his career directing big- and small-screen stuff (including Coal Miner's Daughter and episodes of Rome) to observe and interview the adults those kids became. (Apted was a researcher on the first installment, directed by Paul Almond, and helped choose the young subjects.) Along the way, he has created a series of nonfiction films as profound as they are straightforward: Here is a chronicle of real human souls evolving in real time, a longitudinal study unique to the medium of moving images and a documentary masterpiece.
We're now at 56 Up (released here in theaters), and with each passing calendar leap, the experience of watching has only become more soul-stirring. For those who, like me, have been enjoying the series since the first film, these reunions are both cheering and poignant. We catch up with the upper-class Andrew, Suzy, and John; the East London working-class kids Jackie, Lynn, Sue, and Tony-who-wanted-to-be-a-jockey; the charity-school boys Paul and Symon; and the questing outliers Nick, Peter, Neil, and Bruce. (Charles, another of the posh kids, left the project after 21 Up. He is, by the way, now a documentary filmmaker.) The shock isn't that time has flown since 49 Up, but that it hasn't. And yet seven years later, here we are. How have or haven't Sue and Tony and Neil changed? How have I?
The series' accessibility and genius also lie in the invitation that long acquaintanceship isn't necessary to fall under the Up spell. With perceptive editing, footage from past episodes enhances Apted's clear-eyed portraits of each middle-aged adult clips that chronicle but never presume to explain the mysteries of psychological constitution, physical aging, and existential happenstance that make the man. Or woman. And as a result, each viewer's own experience mine at my age, yours at your age contributes as much to the power of the project as the facts of these particular lives themselves.
There have been some divorces and remarriages. Tony, who became a London cabbie rather than a jockey, is a grandfather who gives off some of the same pugnacious energy he exuded as a boy; Neil, so open and expressive at 7, has trod an emotionally and mentally precarious path to become the anxious local district councillor he is now. The working-class girls wear their years on their faces in a way the upper-class lot do not. At 56, all these individuals seem to have turned a corner toward greater wisdom and acceptance in the trajectory of their lives. Or maybe they just appear that way to me, who hopes I have done likewise. Maybe a younger or older person would interpret the map differently.
Aside from such singularities as the 1973 TV series An American Family and a desultory American imitation of Seven Up! in 1991, there has been no such category as ''reality television'' for most of the 49 years that Up has been under way. These days, private citizens treat a camera's omnipresence with nonchalance, acting ''real'' in front of an anonymous public as a moneymaking opportunity, or perhaps just an exhibitionist kick. Through their generosity in sharing themselves with us, the men and women of 56 Up are an awe-inducing reminder that real life follows no rules of marketing and promotion. Real life is much bigger than that. A