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American Sociological Association: Michael Apted Award Statement
British-born filmmaker Michael Apted, who now lives in California and currently serves as President of the Director’s Guild of America, is in no sense a conventional reporter, nor is he formally trained in sociology (although long ago he studied history and law at Cambridge).Nevertheless his instincts and vision are fundamentally sociological, and perfectly fits the key criterion for this award as someone who is “especially effective in disseminating sociological perspectives… for the general public.”
Rather than reporting on research conducted by others, Apted’s documentaries are made up almost entirely of primary material, which he collects and shapes himself.The Up! documentary film series for which he is best known – the most recent installment of which, 49Up, was released last year – is essentially a longitudinal study of social class, comprised of in-depth, open-ended interviews recorded on film. Apted has followed a group of English children from highly diverse class backgrounds over more than four decades now, and the resulting film series has a worldwide following.
It all started in 1964 when Apted was placed as a researcher on the project that became Seven Up.He and a colleague were given three weeks to recruit children from a set of strategically chosen London schools across the class spectrum.There was no plan for a series at the time; but seven years later Apted pursued the idea.He went on to direct and produce all six of the follow-up films, and he personally has stayed in contact with the subjects during the years in between – all by itself a formidable achievement.When 49Up was released last fall, a collection of the full series in DVD format also became available.Reportedly Apted plans to continue with 56 Up as the next in the series.
Apted also worked on early episodes of the legendary British TV series, “Coronation Street,” which depicted the lives of working-class families in Manchester.He want on to make dozens of feature films, several of which also touch on sociological themes, for example Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980) , a classic bio-pic of country singer Loretta Lynn; Class Action (1991), about a whistle-blower involved in a lawsuit against an automobile manufacturer; and Amazing Grace (2006), a historical film about anti-slavery advocate William Wilberforce .Apted has also produced an American version of the Up! series for television, which has gone through three installments thus far ( 21 Up in America was completed in 2006), although it has not received nearly the attention of its British counterpart. More recently, in 2002, Apted directed a television documentary Married in America, which is about seven American couples from a variety of social backgrounds, as they are about to embark upon
In the end, though, notwithstanding Apted’s prolific output, his nomination for this award must rest primarily on the extraordinary Up! series, his best known and most sociological(albeit sui generis) work.Taking off from the Jesuit aphorism, "Give me the child until he is seven, and I will show you the man," the series vividly chronicles the reproduction of social class – along with a few instances of social mobility – through the lives of the fourteen British children who were first selected by Apted for inclusion in the film Seven Up when he was starting off his film career.Particularly for the individuals from the English upper class and the very poor, the accuracy of the children’s own predictions of their class trajectories is shocking in its precision, although there are also a few cases of upward mobility in between these extremes.Apted deals with race and gender issues in the films to some extent as well, although only four of the subjects are women and only one is a person of color.Although the most dramatic changes in the subjects’ lives are recounted in the first few films, the series as a whole has never lost its spark, each installment is as gripping as that which preceded it.
Apted is an enormously talented interviewer (although some of the subjects are explicit even on camera about their resentment of his intrusiveness) and – equally important – he is a brilliant editor.He reportedly films about thirty hours for each hour that makes it into the final product. Although he works in a very different medium than the award’s first recipient, journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell, Apted’s contribution to the public dissemination of sociological insight is at least as impressive.As all of us who regularly teach undergraduates know, film and television are far more effective than books for reaching many audiences today.With the current renaissance that documentary film is enjoying, and the availability of the full series on DVD, Apted’s impact – already considerable - can only grow.