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October 5, 2007
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NOW Transcript - Show 340
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Transcript - October 5, 2007

BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW.

After weeks of talking on this program about the effects of war, let's spend some time to talk about life. Yes, even tougher than the 'what is art question" while supervising your children's homework is the "what is life?" question. Never have I seen it answered better than a documentary from the renowned British filmmaker Michael Apted that'll run on PBS next week. Apted's been following a group of British folks every seven years since the time they were little kids. The latest in the series, entitled "49 up" makes fascinating connections between economic class, economic opportunity and personal fulfillment as his subjects reach a certain comfort in life's middle age.

CLIP: "In 1964 world in action made "7 up" and we've been back to film these children every seven years since. They are now 49..."

BRANCACCIO: What struck you about the group this time around?

APTED: I suspect there's a more collegial atmosphere between us. More of a sense of equals.And also, they're approaching 50 and I think that makes them much more reflective about their lives.

BRANCACCIO: Like Suzy who grew up in comfortable circumstances, at seven dreamed of having kids; at 14 was insecure to the point she couldn't meet Apted's eye; and at 49 is more at ease.

SUZY AT 49: Maybe now is the first time that i actually feel happy within my own skin. It's taken me a long time to do it.

BRANCACCIO: I mean, it's always breathtaking when you see any of the Seven Up films, to see how the well born kids had their lives completely mapped out for them when they were seven.

ANDREW AT 7: I'm going to charter house, and after that Trinity Hall, Cambridge.

BRANCACCIO: And it's pretty much come true with—in most cases.

APTED: Yeah. I think so. But, you know, a lot of that—one of the problems with the film, I think, is the original one was a somewhat self fulfilling prophecy. It was really a political film, you know, about the English class system. And I think we wanted to make a point. And so we operated on the margins a bit.

We went to the very empowered and the very un-empowered. We went into the East End of London and we went to the very fashionable parts of London, as well as other people we chose from different areas. But largely, I think we were trying to make a point which is not—very bright and not very good filmmaking. But I think we missed a lot by doing that.

We missed the middle classes. And I think we'd find if we concentrated more in the middle classes, we would've got much sense of greater fluidity. And much sense of drama and much sense of disappointment. That people who had been brought up into a world of education suddenly found themselves without jobs.

You know in the '70s and '80s with Margaret Thatcher, you know, the education system collapsed. You know, the nursing system collapsed. The medical world collapsed and everything. And all those middle class jobs sort of went belly up. And I think had I chosen my people from that area of society, that sector of society, it would've been very, very dramatic.

BRANCACCIO: People see what they want to see when they watch a complicated film like yours. And I saw a fascinating article that used 49 Up as a justification for this economic proposition that wealth is not connected to well-being.

That happiness doesn't correlate particularly well with how money you've earned. 'Cause it looked at some people in the film, in your film, who don't make that much money and they said they were happy.

APTED: It depends how you define happiness. A lot of the people in my film do have to worry about money. I think, you know, money doesn't guarantee you happiness, but it makes life a whole lot easier.

BRANCACCIO: Tony, the cabbie, he's doing pretty well. He stayed married somehow. And—

APTED: Somehow, yeah.

BRANCACCIO: 'Cause in 42 Up we find out that the marriage has had some significant problems. But he's got a house in Spain. I mean, there's some upward mobility going on there.

Tony a working class kid, who wanted to become a jockey, worked hard for decades at the wheel a London cab and at 49 manages to buy a vacation home in Spain.

TONY AT 49: I'm very pleased with the house I said the progress we've made in the little space of time that we've had to work here, and get it all sort of ship-shape, is - i think it's done, really.

APTED: It's just interesting about the series that—you know, what is the rule and what is the exception to the rule? Certainly the people who are empowered, I mean, people who had infrastructure behind them, a good education in front of them and then behind them, and had money have been much more mobile. You know, the thing that was, sort of, depressing to me about the un-empowered people that we chose was, you know, their vision of the world is pretty small.

And very few of them have ever moved out of the areas in which they were born. But, you know, you feel that they're still very, very much drawn into that, into their roots. Much more than people who are empowered. And, in fact, take a kind of wider view of the world.

BRANCACCIO: You see that particularly in the case of their own education and also the education of their children. You've spent a lot of time with three women who come from East London—of modest means. Jackie, her son wants to become an apprentice car mechanic but, quote, "The chances of him doing that are probably very slim."

LYNN AT 7: I'm going to work in Woolworths.

BRANCACCIO: Lynn, the librarian, who's dedicated herself to promoting the beauty of reading. Both her kids say no to college. Of course, you do have Paul who moved to Australia.

BRANCACCIO: Paul did not come from money, spent childhood years, in a group home, and unlike his richer counterparts did not have a clear cut plan for his higher education.

PAUL AT 7: What does university mean?

TRACK: He moves to Australia and has a daughter who's the first person in the family to make it to college.

APTED: She is a total exception. And I made an exception by interviewing her. I've never interviewed the children before. I've always been very, kind of, restrictive about it.

But, in Paul's case, with his daughter, I thought it was interesting that of all the people who you sense didn't have a strong education in—in—you know, when they were kids, his is the only one who's actually going to college.

BRANCACCIO: It's amazing how it persists into, yet, this other generation.

APTED: Yeah. Which is, you know —what is it? I mean, again, it's a vision of the world, I think, that, you know, most people unless they have a big stroke of luck, usually, you know, tend to find themselves, you know, staying in the world that they know. With all their views of that world. Whether it's education or travel or politics or whatever.

In England, it isn't just money-wise but it is kind of birth. I mean, that's the burden of my films, you know? And the burden that makes it somewhat different from, say, America is that it is, you know, where you were born and how you were born. And, you know, into what society you were born. Into what social class you were born. You know, determined very much what lay ahead of you.

BRANCACCIO: But it's interesting. There's maybe a tendency of Americans watching this film about Britain to shake their heads and, sort of, scoff at the vestiges of the British class system. But if you look at the statistics for the United States of America, it turns out that income mobility in the United States is about the same as Western Europe. And it's almost precisely the same as Britain.

Meaning, as an economist once told me, the best predictor of what you're going to earn is what your parents earned. And the best predictor of how much education you're going to get in America, not just Britain, is going to be what your parents' education was.

APTED: Well, I mean, as, I mean, I'm a visitor to your great country, but it seems to me you have as a good class system as we do. But yours is money based. Ours was more complicated and more difficult to figure out because it's 800 years of history of a very complicated social environment. But you certainly have as restrictive and as alarming a class system as we have in the United Kingdom.

BRANCACCIO: Some of the people in the film suffer from medical problems. Yet, no discussion that we could see of looming bankruptcy. Britain has a national healthcare system. You also see Neil, a troubled soul, who at one point is homeless.

CLIP—NEIL AT 35:

APTED: What are you likely to be doing?

NEIL: That's a horrible question, I tend to think that most likely answer is that I'll be wandering homeless round the streets of London, but, with a bit of luck, that won't happen.

BRANCACCIO: At one point he gets into subsidized housing. There is a social safety net there, in your home country, that it's quite different here.

APTED: It is. And, you know, thank god for it. I mean, it's difficult to function. It's under funded, but it's still a kind of a national treasure. I mean, the idea of it is very bold and striking. And, you know, I was in London recently and I had some medical problems. And I went to the local hospital. And there was this sign up saying, "All medical services are free to visitors to the country." Which I thought was kind of crazy, but pretty great. But, you know, it doesn't work a lot. It's hugely bureaucratic. It malfunctions. But as you say, there is a genuine safety net that you don't really find here.

BRANCACCIO: Neil's life takes a dramatic turn for the better when he gets elected as a city councilman, first in London, then in the north of England.

CLIP: NEIL AT 49

APTED: You seem to have such, much stronger sense of purpose to your life than you've had before.

NEIL: I see that life comes once and it's quite short, and you have to appreciate what's good in it.

BRANCACCIO: How is it for you when you find yourself every seven years having to track down Neil or some of your people have moved to places like Australia. Is it like some sort of family reunion for you?

APTED: You know, it but it has the upside and the downside of a family. You know, we're all kind of bonded but there's lots of subtext going on. I mean, the the most difficult part of the film for me is to persuade them to do it each time. They all like to torture me. They all, there's a sort of residual anger about it for, in a sense, from all of them, that they were railroaded into it. Which they were.

You know, there is a sense that they didn't ask to do this. This is a sort of thrust upon them. You know, so that makes it kind of tricky for me because every seventh year, some of that—some of that resentment comes out when I ask them to do it.

CLIP: JACKIE AT 49

APTED: Does your temper get you into trouble?

JACKIE: You're probably the best one to answer that. Does it?

BRANCACCIO: Over the course of the seven films, Jackie has repeatedly sparred with Apted, after getting annoyed at some of the questions.

CLIP: JACKIE AT 49

JACKIE AT 49: You will edit this program as you see fit. I've got no control over that. You definitely come across as - this is your idea of what you want to do, and how you see us and that's how you portray us.

APTED: I mean, I take quite a bit of a pasting now and again, which I think is fair game, fair cop.

BRANCACCIO: I mean, 'cause they feel, many of the people in the film, that each time they're judged?

APTED: Yeah. Well, I mean, they are. I mean, by you, by me, by whatever. You know, hopefully, I try not to be judgmental when I'm making the film. But I can't honestly pretend I don't sit back there and watch it and say, "You know, this person isn't telling me the truth here. This person's shutting up on me. This person's closing down or this person's being incredibly open. And do I believe this, do I believe that?"
Personally I think it's very courageous of them to do it. To put their lives up for public examination. And, you know, to criticism. When really it's none of our business.

BRANCACCIO: In four decades of doing this, are you coming to any conclusions about the arc of life? You know, as it goes from the expectations of youth to what we become?

APTED: I think what I've learned is the personalities don't change that much. I mean, if you're extrovert at seven, you're likely to stay so. If you're introverted, thoughtful, whatever, you're likely to stay so. And that you never lose that. I mean, you always see these seven year old faces, you know, reappearing in the 49 year old faces. And you see Neil, who's had a real rollercoaster of life, who seems to be more at ease with himself. He looks more, now, like he looked at seven.

So it's led to me to believe that the only, I think, true thing is that personality doesn't change. Now, you can't predict people's lives. You can't predict how they're going to deal with things.

So, you know, you can't, you know, some people's lives were laid out, as you say, in terms of education. But you can't lay out people's responses to things. Or what, sort of, blows fate is going to give them. What the slings and arrows are going to be. But I think that seven year old face always survives. Always lives on.

BRANCACCIO: John, the barrister, he poses an interesting question that's sort of left hanging in the film.

JOHN AT 49: It is like 'big brother' or 'I'm a celebrity get me out of here.' it's actually real life TV and with the added bonus that you can see people grow old, lose their hair, get fat, um, fascinating, I'm sure, but does it have any value? That's a different question.

BRANCACCIO: Are these films really doing any good? What's your answer to that?

APTED: Well, that's the whole question of reality television, really. You know, are we anything better than that? And I would say, my friend—you know, these films have survived a long time. People write about them. People watch them in huge numbers. And I think that's the only really test, the only proof that a filmmaker can have.
It was never going to be this big, long series. It was only ever going to be one film. And then, you know, we kind of woke up to the fact that we might be onto something. And then we clearly were onto something. And then I hung in on—over all these years. But I can't say what it adds up to. I can only say that it does engage a lot of people. And I think that's—that's enough.

BRANCACCIO: Well, Michael, thank you very much.

APTED: Pleasure.

BRANCACCIO: Michael Apted's film, "49 up" will run as part of the PBS documentary series "POV" next Tuesday. Check your local listings for exact times where you live.

Now when Jimmy Carter was president, he did some serious exterior decorating at the White House - installing thirty-two solar panels up on the roof. But then he left office, and the Reagan administration took them down.

Today, there is renewed talk about saving energy, but just how much can any one of us do? It turns out, quite a lot. We take you now to Decorah, Iowa, where a few families are going above and beyond the energy conservation call of duty. Megan Thompson produced our report.

BRANCACCIO: It's lunchtime at the Kittleson household.
Pretty normal; until you get a close look outside. What's missing? Electric power lines. The Kittlesons produce their own energy —using the wind and the sun.

The Kittlesons live "off the grid" - the power grid that ties most American homes to the generating plants of their electric utility company.

DALE: We're making the electricity right now, that electricity is coming from the sun. It's going into our batteries. And it's making the fan turn. It's got all the lights on and it's running everything else in the house that runs on electricity.

BRANCACCIO: When the Kittlesons started to build their house eight miles outside of town, they found out it would cost more than $10,000 to bring power lines to their property. So they decided to take that money and invest it instead in solar panels and a wind turbine. And they haven't paid an electric bill since.

DALE: This is the power room. The sun shines, and the batteries fill up. And then at night, we just draw right out of the batteries automatically.

BRANCACCIO: A meter in their kitchen tells them how much energy they have.

DALE: First thing in the morning, come down the stairs, look out the window, see if the sun is shining, look at the meter and see how far the batteries are from full. In this case, it says we're 70 amps from full, and it's an 800 amp battery, then we're basically full.

BRANCACCIO: In the summer, the Kittlesons have more power than they need. But other times they have to think more about their energy use.

DALE: As we get closer to winter, that's the shortest days and the least amount of power. Then we will cut back a little bit, maybe not do laundry every day. Maybe not vacuum, which we don't do anyway.

FRANCIS: When we were making the decision to build this house and have it be off-grid, we wanted to make the choice to do that, but not do without. I've never felt like we had lack of something. Or our children have lack of something.

DALE: It was simply a matter of educating ourselves to how much electricity we really needed. Not how much we just felt like we wanted to have. But how much we really needed.

BRANCACCIO: So how much did they really need? They gave up air conditioning. They used more efficient lightbulbs. The Kittlesons' goal is to generate zero emissions, but now they have to make a few compromises: their fridge, one of the most energy-guzzling of appliances, is powered by propane. And they do have a back up for when the sun isn't shining and the wind isn't blowing: a back-up gas-powered generator.

For eight years, the Kittlesons have lived off the grid, and so have at least seven other famlies around Decorah. So just why has a community of off-griders sprouted up out here on the plains? There are a lot of things that might explain it - an abundance of that Midwestern sense of responsibility ... a liberal arts college ... a certified solar installer ... a food co-op. It's a close-knit community and there's a lot of talk about living with the environment in mind.

It was at the co-op that Barb Ettleson and pat brocket, on a weekend trip from Des Moines, happened to stop by and learn about an off-the-grid house for sale in Decorah.

PAT: So this is where the wind energy comes in.

BRANCACCIO: They'd dreamed of living off the grid for years, but it was an adjustment at first.

BARB: When we first got up here, it was like, "Yikes, should we have that light on? Should we do that? Should we do that?" You know, we sold all of our electric appliances. We kind of have learned that you can do any of those things. It's—you just have to manage your resource. And that's really the responsibility everyone has..

PAT: Though we—we—we wake up in the morning and "What's the weather forecast? Well, let's have waffles today." You know? 'Cause we can—we can afford the electricity. So—it's just—it's fun actually.

BRANCACCIO: Pat and Barb's house is heated and cooled without a furnace or air conditioning. It's built using passive solar design, with lots of south-facing windows, so in the winter, when the sun is low, it shines in and helps warm the house, along with a wood stove & in-floor heat. In the summer, when the sun is higher, the windows are shaded. Extra thick insulation helps keep heat in during the winter, and out during the summer. When we visited them, it was almost 90 degrees outside. But inside it's just above seventy.

For Pat and Barb, it's never been about eliminating an electricity bill. It's about making sacrifices to save the earth.

PAT: People have to stop always thinking about something that, "Whe—when is my payback period?" It has now come the time when you do this because it's right.

BRANCACCIO: It's almost impossible to count how many people live off the grid in the U.S. but the last estimate was almost 200,000 and growing fast. Like the families here in Decorah, most go off-grid to be independent from polluting power companies, to conserve dwindling natural resources, or to live in the sticks where there just aren't power lines. But it takes a commitment to conserve, a willingness to fuss with the equipment and the money to pay upfront costs...several grand to tens of thousands of dollars depending on the system.

Across town, the Grimstads are taking a hybrid approach... living efficiently but not quite off the grid.

LARRY: And I've been a banker all my life. I think that renewable energy is a good investment.

BRANCACCIO: When Larry Grimstad retired as president of Decorah Bank and Trust, he and his wife Diane built an energy efficient dream home, spending about $90,000 on 36 solar panels ... a large wind turbine ... and a geothermal heating and cooling system. Their home has all the amenities, including central air and a flat screen tv.

Energy efficiency became a kind of crusade for the Grimstads after they began to learn about global warming.

LARRY: You start thinking about, "Whoa. This is really serious. Well, what does this mean for our children and our grandchildren?" We have six meters that we're tracking the amount of electricity that we're using, and the amount of electricity that we're producing.

BRANCACCIO: The Grimstads don't produce quite enough to cover all their needs, so they are connected to the grid.

Like many states, Iowa allows most people to sell electricity back to their electric company. So when the Grimstads are making extra, they sell it to the utility company. And when they're not making enough, they buy it back.

Over the years, the Decorah families have saved thousands of dollars on electricity bills. They know everyone can't live like this, but hope to inspire the next generation of energy consumers.

DALE: What I like the most, is that my kids are growing up with this just being the most normal thing in the world for them.

CLARA: I think it's really fun to do it. I'm not helping global warming or anything, and it's nice to know that.

BRANCACCIO: To learn more about living off the grid, consult now online...pbs-dot-org is the way to start.

Now here's a look at what we're working on for next week.
We travel around the world for a revealing and intimate look at the lives of girls and young women. Many are going to school and getting jobs...but millions are being forced into early marriage.

Mamta: "I was small...there were lots of people...they dressed me up but I didn't know what was happening."

BRANCACCIO: A young girl's future hangs in the balance. Will her parents allow her to make her own choices about marriage? That's next time on NOW.

And that's it for NOW, from Southern California, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.



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