This review of the crowdsourced documentary Life in a Day was originally published on the movie blog Cinematical on January 27, 2011, as part of the site’s coverage of the Sundance Film Festival.
What is the wonderful and fascinating new documentary Life in a Day about? Yes. What? Exactly. Life in a Day is a film about what. While many documentaries answer the basic journalistic questions of who, what, when, where, and why. This one pretty much just shows us what happened around the world on July 24, 2010. Obviously, that description implies that we also get the answers to where and why but only in very broad and simple terms. Yes, everything in the film (is supposed to have) happened on that specific date, but the times of incidents are only rarely specified. The same goes for exact locations.
The concept of the film is that producer Ridley Scott and Oscar-winning documentarian Kevin Macdonald requested footage shot anywhere around the globe (including under the sea and in the air) on a particular Saturday (the fitting date 24/7, as it is written in Britain). The material, submitted by literally anybody via YouTube, could be of any length and shot with any kind of camera, whether digital or film. Macdonald then constructed a ninety-minute feature compiled out of these submissions, most of which were cut down to mere snippets displaying common and mundane everyday activities. And the result is a spellbinding montage depicting a day in the life of the planet Earth.
Initially, it’s easy to compare the film to Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy (especially the first, Koyaanisqatsi), and I’ve already dubbed this “YouTubisqatsi,” given the partnership with the video-uploading site. Technically it’s the latest documentary classifiable as crowd-sourced or user-generated cinema (like last year’s election day documentary 11-4-08), yet this ultimately feels more like a single person’s vision than a collaborative effort. The many “filmmakers” involved are really just multiple second-unit camerapersons who’ve captured shots and sequences for Macdonald to fit into his own subjective view of humanity, as consistent or diverse as it may seem through the eyes and actions of different individuals.
Structurally Life in a Day is presented only pseudo-chronologically. Unlike some other films of this sort, there are no time stamps or connectible, shared experiences (such as globally simulcast electoral news reports). Alike moments, such as morning routines, meals, and births, are lumped together in rapid succession, and themes are blocked together, as well, regardless of their time of occurrence. I honestly couldn’t help but think of the montage sequences of America’s Funniest People and video compilations, though admitting this doesn’t exactly give a fair idea of the brilliance behind this film’s editing.
Macdonald presents a kind of gradient spectrum of moods and tones, tropes and answers — the footage request came with a few questions, such as “what do you love?” and “what’s in your pocket?” You really notice the shift from positive fluff to the bad side of life when he links together answers to “what do you fear?” and then segues into terrible and even violent footage, including documentation of a tragedy that befell Germany’s Love Parade music festival last summer. That sequence includes TV news reportage, making it one of the rare moments of the film to come with context.
I typically preferred the fleeting stuff without context, when I was allowed to wonder about the details of the who, why, when, and how, but there are a few appreciable little narratives, some intercut through the film as recurring motifs — a globetrotting cyclist is continually revisited as a sort of would-be personification of the film’s sense of intercontinental travel.
Intercutting of other segments may seem unfair to their submitters, though, because newly constructed and potentially unintended contexts come about as a result. For instance, an innocent sequence in which a young woman web-chatting with her husband stationed overseas in the army is crosscut against a sequence of life in Kabul. Through this manipulative clash comes a forced and clichéd statement.
Another contextual aspect that would upset me if I didn’t accept Life in a Day as primarily Macdonald’s film is the soundtrack, which consists of an overpowering string-heavy score and also some on-camera musical performances that are taken from one person or another’s video and spread over a series of other similar clips. Music and what seem to be added sound effects certainly have an effect on how we experience the visuals.
But part of the appeal of projects like Life in a Day is that the audience can find its own patterns and apply its own perspective when interpreting the visuals. Did Macdonald mean to, for political purposes, put footage of poor people so near to footage of people showing off their sports cars and luxury bags? Maybe (probably), or perhaps that was something coincidental that only I noticed. Either way, I’m excited to hear what others see in and feel while watching the film. Each of us is likely to have our favorite of all those selected.