Last year, Ridley Scott teamed up with Youtube for an extremely special event. A calling was put out to the global Youtube community to record a day in their life, on the 24th July. The uptake was huge. From 91 countries across the world, there were 80,000 submissions which totalled 4,500 hours of footage (or 187.5 continuous days). Other footage was sourced from cameramen sent out to the developing and third world countries. Scott, along with director Kevin McDonald and editor Joe Walker, then spent over 7 weeks sorting and editing the best footage into a 90 minute film (I think those are all the statistics done with). That film became Life in a Day.
The film itself has already had an impressive amount of screening. Debuting at the Sundance Film Festival in January, it had limited cinema release, before being uploaded to Youtube at the end of October, free to watch. It has also been transmitted on BBC2 in early November, so it should already have a decent viewership for many people reading this. For those of you who haven’t seen it, I heartily recommend it to be worth a watch, whether you end up enjoying it or not.
Let me just say, this is a film unlike anything else I have ever watched. Many critics claim the film has no focus, that it is rather scattered and has no real linear narrative. Most documentaries, you see, always have a particular focus. For example, you watch a documentary on the life of a penguin, and expect it to fairly penguin-centric. But how do you deal with a documentary covering all aspects of human culture, over 24 hours? Be prepared to wait a little longer, I will make my point.
I live near Oxford, a very academic city with lots of interesting museums. None of these more so, in my opinion, than the Pitt Rivers Collection. This is the largest and most fascinating anthropological collection of items of its kind, covering all of the cultures across the world. How it groups them however, is not into their own separate cultures, but into sections of life. Currency, for example, is all grouped together, so you can best cross examine how different cultures from different ages have used it. This is the way it should be done, and so it is for Life in a Day. Enough preamble, we now come to the film.
We start at in the very early hours of a day. Note that for the purposes of the film, all time zones become aligned as one. We flit from two night-vision green elephants frolicking in an African watering hole, to an early morning Muslim prayer session, to an American taking you on a tour of his favourite elevator. And so it endures, a continuous back and forth across the globe throughout the rest of the morning, these small Youtube clips giving an insight into each life. Do not think that there are not themes however, for the editing is beautifully subtle. We see how a fairly ordinary man collecting his milk bottle from outside cuts to Eastern European farmers herding and milking their goats by hand.
I’m afraid that I might be making this all seem incredibly plain.
The fascination comes from seeing an everyday activity that we all recognise, like reading the morning paper, then being shifted hundreds of miles in less than a second, to an incredibly moving monologue of an Australian man in hospital reading his. The varying shifts in cultures are echoed in a quality of camera work. The handheld efforts of mundane life in America are a world away from the professional crews, let loose in lands of comparatively exotic chaos and wonder in the East.
This is definitely a piece that gathers momentum, in case you are 13 minutes in, wondering what makes me so excitable about a 15 year old American’s first shave. Frankly, the rather less exciting stuff makes this movie more than you initially realise, but it becomes a real emotional journey through cultures you had never thought to seek in your mind. A tour through Afghanistan by a teenage photographer contrasts excellently with the shenanigans of troops in the Army bases over there. Scenes based around relationships follow proposals, failed courtships, a young man coming out to his grandmother, and various wedding ceremonies. All of these contrast with a young woman’s weekly date with her Afghanistan based boyfriend, a truly heartbreaking piece.
There are criticisms, and I do have to say it is our culture that lets the side down. Give an American or Brit a camera, and a potential audience, and we do seem to enjoy it. Only a few were letting the side down, but hearing someone talk of their love for Walt Whitman and trying desperately to correctly quote it for their infant children, one wonders whether that is truly a daily activity, or a chance to play up for their own camera. That said, I was amazed by the sincerity of the rest of the… (cast? I suppose they are). It is perhaps the greatest strength of Life in a Day that you can see real stories, real lives and real emotions by real people, under their own direction, without any often straying into theatrics.
Some scenes are disturbing, shocking and difficult to watch for some. I suggest that they be watched nevertheless, because the film is better for their inclusion. It is possibly my favourite film of the year so far, and being available for free here, should be worth an attempt to watch by anyone who stumbles across this article, and has made it this far into an extensively thorough article. I heartily apologise, but it was well worth it.