Life in a Day is a portrait of the universal (and strangely comforting) banality of every day life around the world, shot on a single day last July; it’s a surprisingly entertaining narrative, created as it from amateurish (many in and of themselves, mundane) submissions made by tens of thousands of people, and is a likely harbinger of things to come in the realm of documentary filmmaking.
Director Kevin Macdonald, a filmmaker who moves gracefully between documentaries and features (One Day in September, The Last King of Scotland), was approached by the Scott brothers and their partner YouTube (the perfect medium to promote such a concept) to see if he would be interested in helming a film that was to be created from amateur submissions filmed world wide on a single day (Saturday 24 July, 2010). Macdonald is a fan of British filmmaker and artist Humphrey Jennings and his films born out of the Mass Observation Movement of the 1930s (an attempt to document everyday lives, primarily through detailed diary keeping and simple questions such as ‘what’s in your pockets?’), and was intrigued by the prospect of applying the Mass Observation methodology and aesthetic to a project created using modern communication technology.
The filmmakers received a staggering 80,000 clips (over 4,500 hours), which a team of researchers watched, catalogued and filtered so that Macdonald and his team, including editor Joe Walker, could watch a manageable amount of footage in order to find a way to structure a 90 minute feature. The film is primarily built on two strands, as it were: a number of people who appear more than once, weaving in and out of the film as the day proceeds chronologically, and sections comprised of repetitive activity (teeth brushing, walking, having morning coffee, work). Watching the film, one can’t help but be impressed with the sheer scale of the undertaking, and the skill of the filmmakers in shaping the material into a coherent and engaging structure; eight different filmmakers would no doubt have made eight very different films, and it must have been difficult for different members of the creative team to leave people or footage they were attached to on the cutting room floor.
While occasionally creeping towards a kind of ‘I’d like to teach the world to sing’ brotherhood of man naïveté, the filmmakers avoid tipping into the maudlin by using sobering imagery (including footage of the stampede at the Love Parade in Duisberg, Germany that resulted in 21 deaths and over 500 injuries, and the grisly surgical wounds of a cancer patient) that reminds us that suffering didn’t get the day off on 24 July. Interestingly, several Christians attest to God’s place at the centre of their lives, as do a few Muslims, but there is little representation or statements of spiritual devotion from other faiths other than a few glimpses of ritual in the East.
At a time when a great many people have access to technology that allows them very good to exceptional quality home viewing, the tolerance for low quality, amateurish moving images has never been higher, thanks in large part to the confluence of YouTube and the ubiquitous camera-in-phone, as well as the preponderance of the reality TV aesthetic (the amateurishness of hand held DV footage used to bring a dramatic immediacy to proceedings). As Kevin Macdonald pointed out when I interviewed him last week, the things people choose to shoot, and how they choose to shoot them, often hark back to the kinds of static tableau that the Lumiere brothers shot at the very dawn of moving pictures. Some worry that non-professional documentaries will completely supplant professionally shot non-fiction films, but that seems highly unlikely; it’s simply another technical/stylistic choice that will be appropriate for some material and subjects, and won’t be for others.
I am docking the film half a star because I really didn’t care for the music, which pulled me out of the film several times (particularly a couple of cloying new folk vocal numbers). Life in a Day is a crowd pleaser that doesn’t warrant an overly cynical assessment; it’s also a successful experiment that is likely to spawn many imitators, as successful experiments do.