First Run Features // 2006 // 70 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski (Retired) // July 22nd, 2008
"Give me the child until he is 7 and I will give you the man."
-- Jesuit maxim
The above quotation was the spark for Britain's landmark Up documentary series which, since 1964's 7 Up!, has been chronicling the everyday lives of a diverse group of Britons with installments every seven years. The original British series, in turn, was the spark for Angus Gibson's South African version, which has been attempting a similar project in that country since 1992, feeling out the contours of post-Apartheid society through the individual lives of the following people:
A little white boy from the countryside has grown up into a star university rugby player who loves to hunt.
Living with her family but unable to find work, Thembisile takes care of the family's young children and does chores, but is heartbroken that she cannot lift her working mother's burdens.
No longer dreaming of being a soccer pro, Frans is still living with his parents in a crowded township and is trying to pass a driving test in the hopes of becoming a traffic cop.
This young Indian woman lives in a gated community with her with her hip mother, whom she even goes clubbing with. Their relationship has grown stronger since Arthi's father's death around the time of the last installment.
Andiswa had been sharing a single hostel room with a number of relatives until she got married and moved in with her in-laws. They didn't treat her well when she couldn't get pregnant, and she soon got a divorce because her husband was unfaithful.
Living in the same hostel as Andiswa, Luyanda's situation is the opposite of hers: too much fertility. He has two children by different mothers and has decided he won't marry either of them. Luckily, he has a job to help support the kids.
Young Lizette's life seems to have taken an unexpected turn after a surprise teen pregnancy ended in her parents adopting her baby, while Lizette herself married another man, got pregnant again, and became a suburban housewife. Reporting a "perfect" life filled with boredom, hers seems to be an economically privileged but somewhat unfulfilling situation.
The only black participant whose family has considerable wealth, Katlego has decided to abandon his expensive education for a managerial construction job where he seems to tell older black men what to do for most of the day. And on his days off, he snowboards.
Lunga seems to be the most hopeful story of class transcendence in 21 Up South Africa. After learning English with an American accent from television, he got a chance to go to a white school. Schooling with whites and living with blacks brought (sometimes violent) tensions to his life, but Lunga has since traveled to Germany as an exchange student and is attending a black University.
As a little girl, Kashan fidgeted endlessly and argued with a friend about who was more Jewish. At 21, some of her restlessness has translated into a recently-overcome problem with drugs, but she is working in computers while pursuing hobbies of DJing and filmmaking.
One of South Africa's "coloureds," as mixed-race people are called there, Claudia spends much of this installment mourning the loss of her friend and co-interviewee Shane to AIDS. But she herself is doing well, living in the suburbs and studying science with the hope of going to med school.
Although neither series really makes overt efforts to test out that Jesuit maxim, the hope in the South Africa series seems to be that seeing the child at age 7 will not "give you the man" because many of the black children at 7 are living in poverty. One of the series' central questions seems to be, will the lifting of Apartheid grant them brighter futures?
The answer, at 21, seems mostly to be "no." While all of the white children seem to have maintained their secure or wealthy economic status, only one of the black children seems to have made progress in getting stable work or education. Both the subjects and Gibson's film itself seem to point a finger back at South Africa's embedded class structure here rather than at individuals. Most are aggressively looking for work -- but there isn't much work to be had for people like them. There are several truly sad moments here, including when Thembisile cries because she cannot find work to repay or relieve her mother who has been working to support her family for years. An even more poignant moment occurs in the editing of Frans' segment, which shows him giving a tour of his family's house at 14, intercut with another tour of that same house at 21. We get a sense of the stagnation in Frans's life, which really hits hard when he shows us where he sleeps. At 14, he demonstrates how he moves a chair each night to make enough space for himself on the floor of his parents' cramped bedroom. At 21, he demonstrates how he moves the same chair from the same spot on the same cramped bedroom floor each night as he still sleeps there. As Frans explains, he is living on "the ground floor" of society, or maybe even underground.
Worse still, three of the non-white individuals have died of AIDS since the last taping at 14. This high casualty rate is one of the biggest eye-openers of 21 Up South Africa -- especially compared to the British series in which all of the participants have made it to 49, so far. Especially upsetting is the implication that others among the cast could be on their way to meet the same fate. When interviewed about his HIV status, Luyanda says that he hasn't been tested, doesn't know his status, and probably wouldn't get tested unless he started to feel sick. While paying due tribute to each of the victims, 21 Up South Africa does seem like it could have explored the AIDS issue in more detail.
Of course, a big part of the draw of either of the Up series is watching people grow and develop physically. As with the British series, it's fun here to witness the transformation, as 21 Up South Africa reminds us of what each subject looked like at 7 and 14 before we greet them again at 21.
In terms of mental and emotional development, 21 Up South Africa is less satisfying. At only 70 minutes, it feels like we barely spend any time with each participant. And, most detrimentally, one consistently gets the sense of the film tiptoeing around its subjects and staying near the surfaces of their lives. As a documentary, it's quite observational in style -- not wanting to put pressure on its subjects or judge them in any way. As a result, we sometimes feel like we're not getting the whole story, or we sense the film subtly promoting a certain interpretation without being willing to do so openly. I'd guess that a lot of this over-protective attitude comes from developing bonds with one's subjects over time and from not wanting to anger or alienate them, for the benefit of future installments. The problem is that when Gibson is unwilling to draw connections between the participants' lives or conclusions about them, the film starts to feel like a monotonous, disjointed collection of unrelated mini-biographies. A little more help from Gibson in filling in the details of this South African big picture would have been welcome.
Viewers interested in the country or fans of the original Up series should still enjoy this South African spin-off -- and for the Up fans, maybe it will fill their serial-documentary fix until their beloved Britons grow up again and reach 56!
Review content copyright © 2008 Jennifer Malkowski; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
* 1.55:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Afrikaans)
Running Time: 70 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Filmmaker bio
* Photo gallery
* IMDb: 7 Up South Africa