21 Up South Africa
First Run Features // Unrated // $24.95 // July 22, 2008
Review by Chris Neilson | posted July 10, 2008
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Few, if any, documentary series have spawned as many iterations as has the landmark collection of British documentaries collectively referred to as the Up Series. The first film in this series documented the lives of fourteen British seven-year-olds in 1964. Subsequent films in the series have revisited these same participants every seven years since to consider how their lives have changed both over the most immediate seven years and over the course of the series as a whole. The seventh and most recent release was 49 Up completed in 2005. The original Up Series is close to the hearts of many viewers and filmmakers around the world. In fact, so loved is the Up Series and the underlying idea of regularly revisiting a group of documentary film participants that many production companies and filmmakers have followed in the footsteps of the original.

In addition to 21 Up South Africa (2007), three other series have managed to follow participants from age seven, through fourteen, and on to twenty-one: Born in the U.S.S.R.: 21 Up (2005), 21 Up Japan (2006), and 21 Up in America (2006). So far, however, 21 Up South Africa is the only film in any series other than the original to be generally available on DVD in North America.

The South African iteration of the Up Series began in 1992 with fifteen seven-year-olds selected to more or less demographically represent the nation as a whole. The ethnically, culturally, linguistically, religiously, economically, and geographically diverse group included eight girls and seven boys. Though the documentaries 7 Up in South Africa and 14 Up in South Africa are not available on DVD in North America, footage from both are included in 21 Up South Africa. This footage is crucial in permitting the viewer to understand the documentary as something more than a snapshot of these individuals at a particular time in their lives. The intended effect is to facilitate consideration of the participants as individuals moving along a life path, with whom the viewers have the opportunity to re-engage every seven years.

The premise of the original Seven Up was that by age seven, the genetic predeterminates, environment, and character is so set that one can generally predict the life trajectory of the child. With a couple of arguable exceptions, this premise was validated more or less by the original Up Series participants, and it seems to generally be true for the participants of the South African Up Series as well. Those participants that appeared to have great opportunities ahead of them at age seven, more or less did well even in the face of subsequent hardships like the loss of a parent or family business. While those participants that appeared to have few opportunities at age seven, continue to have few opportunities at age twenty-one.

Perhaps the most striking difference between the participants of the original Up Series and those of the South African iteration is the extent to which premature death haunts these young South Africans. Although all of the original Up Series participants were still living at the time 49 Up was filmed, three of the fifteen participants in the South African iteration have already died of AIDS by the time 21 Up South Africa was filmed. How many more of the participants are HIV positive is unclear, as none admit to even being tested despite their fears.

Until the earlier documentaries in the South African Up Series are released on DVD in North America, 21 Up South Africa will have to be judged solely on its own merits. Unfortunately, despite everything the series has going for it such as the proven formula, interesting locale, and active and engaging participants, 21 Up South Africa suffers from poor editing. For example, the names and pictures of some of the participants are flashed on the screen during the first few minutes of the film, but the introduction is extremely cursory and gives the impression that these are the only participants. However, as the documentary unfolds other participants are introduced. Confusingly, after the incomplete introduction in the film's beginning, none of the participants are identified by on-screen text. The incomplete introduction coupled with the lack of adequate subsequent identification works against allowing the viewer to engage with the participants as individuals.

The most egregious editing decision though concerns the documentary's abbreviated runtime. Even though the number of active participants has dropped from fifteen to eleven due to three deaths and one dropout, the documentary still gives some individual consideration to all fifteen, and includes footage from ages seven and fourteen for all but one. Filmmaker Angus Gibson attempts to do all this in just seventy minutes which is simply not enough time to get to know who these participants were at seven and fourteen, and who they are now at twenty-one.

The Video:
This 1.85:1 widescreen image is letterboxed. Color levels are generally consistent, but the image is interlaced and suffers from minor digital artifacts.

The Audio:
The 2.0 Dolby Digital audio is acceptable with no noticeable dropouts or distortions. Subtitles on non-English dialogue are forced, and no other subtitle options are provided.

The Extras:
Extras consist of a filmmaker bio, a photo gallery of eleven images of the participants, a trailer and excerpt from the original Up Series, and four trailers for other First Run Features DVD releases. No trailer for this film is provided.

Final Thoughts:
The first five films in the original Up Series were not released on DVD in North America until three years after 42 Up was, so there's hope we may yet see the first two films of the South African Up Series on DVD as well. Certainly, viewing the films sequentially would be a different, and likely better, experience than watching 21 Up South Africa alone. Lacking access to those first two films in the series though makes it difficult to recommend this one because of 21 Up South Africa's confusing editing and woefully short runtime.

Fans of the landmark original Up Series are advised to rent it, and everyone else is encouraged to see the original Up Series first before viewing this orphan release from the South African Up Series.

The original Up Series up through the most recent film, 49 Up, is available in a complete box set also from First Run Features.

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