Life In A Day review

An ambitious documentary from director Kevin Macdonald, Life In A Day offers a snapshot of life on Earth seen through the lens of its inhabitants. Here’s Michael’s review...

There’s currently a real confusion about how to tackle YouTube. There’s no doubt that it’s now shaping and affecting Internet culture, entertaining millions with short videos of babies laughing, pets talking and spoiled schoolgirls indulging in expensive forms of karaoke.

Although, while its ephemera are often highlighted, its more subtle aspects are rarely championed. Has there ever been a similar cultural organ, which acts simultaneously as an online archive for visual media, and a platform for everyday voices? At its heart, it is an immersive catalogue of video culture, from music promos and trailers to skits and spoofs, from astoundingly creative content to self-obsessed vlogging.

Out of this struggle for legitimacy and definition comes Life In A Day, an ambitious, unashamedly self-aggrandising project, which takes one aspect of the YouTube phenomena, that of micro-autobiography, and uses it to tell the modest story of life as we knew it on 24th July 2010.

Produced in part by Ridley and Tony Scott, and eventually directed by Kevin Macdonald, the project invited YouTube users to submit videos about how the day panned out for them. The resulting film is nothing short of an incredible feat of editing, whittling down thousands of submissions and arranging the prime cuts into a tightly-wound ninety-five minute showcase.

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However, such ambitious beginnings lumber the finished project with a conflict of theme and purpose, a tension between being a time capsule for the date in question, and providing a global survey of human experience, as well as being, as the posters so proudly state, “filmed by you”.

At times Life In A Day cribs from the Godfrey Reggio/Ron Fricke school of documentary, offering beautiful montage sequences that rearrange familiar images into rhythmic, visual poetry, spliced with musical backing. However, whereas Koyaanisqatsi and Baraka, the former aided by Philip Glass’ iconic score, could turn the real world into monumental, evocative cinematic experiences, Life In A Day‘s focus on sentiment and routine (sleeping, waking, eating, crapping, birthing, dying, the whole shebang) can sometimes come off as a little trite at best, or at worst feel like a feature-length mobile phone commercial.

So much has the emotive potential of the world, and our personal roles within it, been co-opted by marketeers in the interest of covert persuasion, that it highlights how this film, in its essentialist presentation of life, does so mostly without context, comment or distinction.

When a patient recently recovering from a heart operation stares into the camera and cries, or a father faints when witnessing the birth of his child, we know little of their lives, and while such images may be moving, they achieve such effect by chiming, for better or worse, with supposedly fundamental human characteristics. And by giving itself over to sentimentality and nostalgia, the film shoots for sincerity at the risk of cliche.

It’s such an approach that also prevents Life In A Day from working as a time capsule. Besides a short sequence concerned with the tragic incident where revelers at the Love Parade festival in Germany were seriously injured or crushed to death by a stampede, the film skirts around the specifics, instead making general references to war, religious conflict and global warming that never feel unforced. When the life of a photographer in Kabul is shown alongside a rather affecting entry from an army wife waiting for her regular Skype conversation with her husband, you see that Macdonald and company value the poignancy of the collision over the individual stories themselves.

Life In A Day works best when it focuses on personal moments with odd characters, such as a man with a huge piano collection, a Russian freerunner, or a woman who confronts her son, on camera, for not tidying his bedroom. It’s in that mix of the ordinary and the delightfully weird that the film most strongly evokes the quirky YouTube experience, where typical touchstones are avoided or subverted, often in utterly frank, disarming ways.

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For the best example, see what could be film’s most profound moment, where a woman ends her day stuck in a car in a thunderstorm. After missing out on her chance to film something worthwhile for her submission, she hastily records a monologue, concluding with a plea that, more than anything else, she wants “people to know that I’m here”.

However, for the most part, Life In A Day seems to miss the point of YouTube and the democratising rise of cheap technology and free hosting platforms. It’s not to mimic cinema, or to craft major statements about existence. It’s to run alongside daily life, offering vibrant, distinctive, never boring tidbits to inform, to entertain and, more often than not, to distract.

To bolt together hundreds of tiny fragments makes a whole that mostly veers between blandness, mawkishness and contrivance. If it tells us anything, it’s that visual culture is still very confused, indeed, about its own future. And, for now, we’re stuck in the voyeuristic moment.

You can follow Michael on Twitter here, or read his blog here.


3 out of 5