If you went on YouTube in the first half of 2010 you might have seen an advert for Life In A Day, a ‘crowdsourcing’ project with the aim of crafting a documentary from footage recorded by YouTube contributors on 24th July 2010, which would then be cut together by the project’s director, Kevin Macdonald (The Last King Of Scotland, Touching The Void), and turned into a feature length documentary. This is a filming experiment that was crying out to be done.
With the explosion in social media sites like facebook, twitter, youtube, et al, it’s often lamented, about once a week in the broadsheet opinion sections, that all this public exposure of private lives is nothing more than tedious, insipid, distracting, narcissism. A quick look at your facebook and twitter timelines might do little to refute this allegation. But it stands to reason that amongst all the noise there must be some worthwhile message. This is what Life In A Day aimed to prove; that with a good filter, it would be possible to extract (from the 4,500 hours of footage submitted) some gold from all the dirt.
The whole documentary follows a vague structure of first thing in the morning, to last thing at night, made up of a mix of short vignettes of routines and activities, cut with considerably longer clips where we spend some time with people, getting a very personal glimpse of their lives. Among these longer, personal, clips there are many interesting moments, some of them genuinely moving, but there seems to be a general bias, with the more personal and in-depth clips being largely from western, English speaking, contributors. The result is that there ends up being something of a divide between YouTube style personal documentation of westerners, and National Geographic (also involved with the project) style impersonal documentation of the rest of the world.
However, in spite of that there seems to be a clear message that while the details of each of our lives might differ, our overall lives have a lot in common; family is important, friends are important, we want better for ourselves and loved ones, we can be kind or cruel, generous or selfish, we sleep, eat, socialise, work, relax and sleep again.
The quality of the sound and picture for the whole documentary is surprisingly good and a credit to the assistants who combed through the submissions. Also, Kevin Macdonald deserves no small credit for managing to craft such an engaging and intriguing documentary. The movement over the course of the film from morning to day to night, but without paying to much attention to the clock, allows the film to go beyond documenting simple routines as we see other themes such as birth to death, darkness into light, good versus bad start to emerge. It all feels like a smart and well executed project… Until the very last clip.
It’s not really a plot spoiler if I explain it (there is no plot), but skip this paragraph if you want to avoid it. After a pretty intense nighttime/rollercoaster/violence montage, with everything spinning out of control we get one last clip; an American teenage girl alone in her car, upset, talking about how she wanted the day to be exciting so she could film it, but the day turned out to be boring, but the project itself was exciting, so that makes things okay. The delivery of this feels like some of the worst type of self-centred YouTube videos, devoid of spontaneity to the point where you wonder if she spent the whole day rehearsing it. But more than the stilted nature of the clip, there’s a privileged self-pity to it, as if the rest of the world had an obligation to entertain her. Compared to the humbling and at times upsetting ways we had seen other people live their lives, this final clip felt in sharp contrast, it felt indulgent, entitled and lacking of perspective. It was all me, me, me when the message of the film had been more us, us, us.
But maybe that was the director’s intention, to show that for all the brilliant footage these enthusiastic amateurs had contributed via YouTube, the nature of the service still lends itself to, and maybe even encourages, some of our more solipsistic, narcissistic tendencies.
Life In A Day was an ambitious project and a well executed one, producing probably the most significant film of the age of social media, and (eurgh, I’m loath to use the term) web 2.0, showing there may be some merit to the bits of our lives we post for others to see everyday. Whether this documentary would stand up without the context of the crowdsourcing, i.e. in terms of giving us new or fresh insight into something, I suspect not. But it’s a worthwhile and encouraging venture into what could be an interesting area of cinema in years to come.