At age 7, Judge Jennifer Malkowski wanted to be a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. At 21, she was no closer to realizing that ambition. However, she remains hopeful for 28.
"Give me the child until he is 7 and I will give you the man."
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:
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!
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