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Life in a Day

Director: Kevin Macdonald
Cast: Hiroaki Aikawa, Cindy Baer, Christopher Brian Heerdt, Matthew Irving, Ranja Kamal, Moica, Caryn Waechter

(National Geographic Entertainment; US theatrical: 29 Jul 2011 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 17 Jun 2011 (General release); 2011)

Somewhere, breakfast looks like this: close-ups of eggs or bacon, butter on toast, cereal in a bowl. Milk or juice. Someone, short, blowing bubbles. Somewhere else, breakfast looks different. Somewhere else, a goat is involved. Or a cow. Or coffee in a shop. With steamed milk. Black. In a cup with a sleeve. In Life in a Day these examples of breakfast come with percussion. The shots are tight and fast. The effect is propulsive.


Until you come to Cathy. Here the film slows down, briefly. Cathy has cancer. Her son is worried. Her husband is videotaping. “We’re documenting everything,” he says. As the boy makes noise, dad has a suggestion, “Let mommy sleep.” A moment later, she’s awake, the camera following her as she speaks to her son. “I know it’s hard,” she soothes. “I just need us all to help each other.” He’s fretful. He turns to the camera: “And stop videotaping.” 


It’s one of multiple striking scenes in Life in a Day, a concoction of other people’s footage, produced by Ridley and Tony Scott and made possible by YouTube. If Cathy’s son expresses one response to too much mediation, other subjects are more eager to contribute, recording themselves waking up, brushing their teeth, riding a train, climbing stairs, swimming, shopping, or coming out (“Grandma,” a young man speaks into his phone, “They call it ‘being gay’ now, it’s not ‘homosexual.’ It’s not a disease, thank you”). They tape their family members, the monument they’re visiting, the soccer game they’re watching. A young woman records her Skype-date-night with her husband, who’s deployed in Afghanistan. A news photographer in Kabul describes what he’s shooting: “This is my house, here is my father drinking tea,” he says. “My mother is praying, my brother is again staring at the refrigerator.” A young man tapes his bike trip across the Koreas. “It’s not easy to explain motivation,” he offers, “Can I do something to unite Korea? It looks impossible, it looks out of my hands, but impossible is possible.” 


Each scene is self-creation, of course, at least a story started. Some scenes are reduced to beats, then edited into montages and set to pop songs: pretty girlfriends or feet in motion, people splashing in water or people dancing. These are obvious choices, given the idea to include as much as possible in the film. But they’re less compelling than the longer moments. As Cathy (whose scenes are multiple and intercut throughout the film’s “day”) tells her little boy, sort of, the point is to make order of chaos, even if it’s not exactly true. “I need you to be a happy boy today, okay?” she urges. “It’s a happy film and it has a happy ending.” 


This idea, that film or video can make sense, take a structure, or even represent what’s happened, is written into the film’s conception. “Be part of history,” offered YouTube about a year ago. All you had to do was record your life on one day—24 July 2010—and “answer a few simple questions.” After you uploaded your footage to YouTube, you waited for someone to do something with your piece. Culling some 4,500 hours down to 95 minutes took time and workers, beginning with a squad of “researchers” (say, film school graduates, or people with multiple languages) who evaluated the submissions (awarding stars, 1-5). A next step involved editor Joe Walker and director Kevin Macdonald assembling those clips judged best, that is, not among the hundreds of hours of what Walker describes as “Teenagers whining in their bedrooms to no particular affect.” [sic]


You might imagine how looking at lots of hours of similar-seeming images—and social-mediated complaints—can be daunting. And indeed, this seems both the brilliance and the utter ridiculousness of Life in a Day. It’s an intriguing experiment, storytelling by many, ordered by a few, user-generated and smartly marketed, often by way of numbers: 81,000 initial contributors, from 192 countries, 400 cameras sent to “the developing world,” and 60 different frame-rates to convert.


One of the film’s strategies to organize all these abstractions is the “simple questions,” introduced on handwritten cards. The question “What do you fear?” leads to confessions and performances: “Any kind of monster or witch,” says a little girl.  Other answers are arranged in short clips, as if in a list: dogs, lions, wasps, growing up, nothing. “I fear robbers and rapers,” says a girl with dark hair. “This is me,” says a woman, her camera pointed at her mirror, “This is what I’m afraid of.” A man in a hospital, his face taut and body wasted, gazes steadily into his camera: “Dying, I guess.” Another section takes up another question: “The thing I love most is my laptop,” a man, enthusing that Wikipedia is a “giant library.” Some answers are broad (“I love life, it’s all such fun!”), and others are illustrated (“You’re looking at him,” that is, a cat purring).  People love their families, their God, their cars, and football. “I actually love my refrigerator,” someone admits.


If the film’s very concept invites confessions, Life in a Day is still, in the end, contrived, with themes and structures imposed, some according to time of day, others according to idea. Here you see babies, there you see food (pasta in a pot, watermelon, a cow shot in the head, on its way to becoming food), and there are beloved possessions: “This is a Lamborghini,” “My iPod, which is my soul,” and, as a woman says of her Luger, “I take this with me wherever I go.”


Amateur and also news footage of the 24 July stampede at the Loveparade in Duisburg, Germany, where 21 people died, is followed by a montage: a monkey wearing a mask, a kid crying, dark clouds, a woman crying, fires in a forest and in a city building, a man with his gun. Life in a day includes sadness and chaos, at least for a couple of minutes. The film can’t be complete, and doesn’t try to be. Born of the current technology, it’s what’s transient, stilled, for the moment. The girl who closes the film also summarizes: “I want people to know that I’m here, I don’t want to cease to exist.” Recorded, she exists.

Rating:

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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