Life in a Day

LIFE IN A DAY. Documentary directed by Kevin Macdonald.  Rated PG (Mild themes, coarse language and sexual references). 91 min.

This is an unusual documentary that has resulted from people in 192 countries sending in the videos they have recorded on one special day - Saturday, July 24, 2010. Ridley Scott co-produced the film, and the movie consists of footage selected from contributors, all of which are acknowledged in the credits. 4,500 hours of footage were gathered from the countries, and the movie shows material that has been edited from 81,000 submissions. Twenty-one languages are heard on the soundtrack.To make the movie, people were asked to record the details of their lives at any time on the one day, and some were asked specific questions about their experience. Approximately three quarters of the movie’s contents came from persons, who were contacted through YouTube, advertising, newspapers, and television shows.

The remainder came from cameras that were distributed in the developing world, in a deliberate attempt to make the content of the movie global. Macdonald focused on a single day “because a day is the basic temporal building block of human life – wherever you are” (quote from the director), and there is no great significance in the day that was chosen other than a World Cup Final occurred on that day, and there was a full moon, which is featured at the start and the end of the film. Macdonald’s task was to choose the “best bits” of the material that came to him, and these provided his themes. Two of them stand out. People were asked what do they most love in life, and what do they most fear. Some of their answers are extraordinary.

The film does not have a traditional story-line, or an obvious narrative thread, and it roughly progresses from morning on July 24th. to mid-night on the same day. The resulting mix is personal, predictably routine and seemingly-trivial at times, but involving, arresting and fascinating. There are scenes of cattle being slaughtered,  thrill-seekers engaging in risky behaviour, animals and humans giving birth, gardening in the Middle-East, teaching a son to honour the memory of his dead mother, singing in the heat of the desert, and surviving while thieving in Moscow. The camera ranges from America, to Asia, Africa, Antarctica, and Europe, and most of the people know they are being filmed.

Not surprisingly, the movie offers a variable selection of themes. It deals with the acts we all do and shows the elements of similarity and differences in the doing. People fight each other, love one another, roll out of bed, go to the toilet, wash, talk, eat,  and go to work. The film shows all of this, and more. Though obviously amateurish in parts, it is moving and funny. Its power comes from the intimacy of scenes that genuinely engender emotion. Its richness stems from the individuality in the way that people culturally express what they feel.

The film represents a novel experiment, and its sweep is massive. Single scenes are touching and memorable. One cannot help but be deeply moved by the man who says that his greatest fear in life is that his wife would get cancer, but now she has cancer, he is fearless. Also moving, is the young man telling his grand-mother by phone that he is gay and fearing her reaction, and the young girl who ends the movie by saying nothing much has happened to her during the day, but that is the wonder of the day for her. Many moments linger that express the power of human emotion, but also the special vulnerability that lies behind loneliness and lack of love. Everyone will see something or someone in the movie to identify with, and no one will feel excluded by the sweep of the film.

The film is more than a documentary of what contemporary life means across cultures. Individual scenes in it are insightful and revealing, and skilful editing provides a rhythm to the movie. Scenes in it might be patched together, but a sense of humaneness and common vulnerability emerge intimately from the whole.

Peter W. Sheehan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

Transmission Films.

Out September 1, 2011.