Crowdsourcing on a global scale
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, July 29, 2011
Cobbled together from footage shot by 80,000 anonymous filmmakers around the world over the course of a single day - July 24, 2010 - "Life in a Day" boasts a co-production credit by You Tube. With such a pedigree, you might expect that the resulting feature-length film would be a hodgepodge of stupid pet tricks, skateboarding stunts and forgettable song parodies, despite having been shaped by Oscar-winning director Kevin Macdonald.
You would be wrong.
Despite having no conventional narrative, other than the sleeping, waking, rising, bathing, eating and living cycles of ordinary people across the globe, "Life in a Day" is, without exaggeration, a profound achievement. Alternately funny, scary, boring, moving, amateurish and gorgeous, it is a pretty spectacular thing: a crowdsourced movie that manages to feel singular and whole. That's less the achievement of Macdonald and his editors - who sifted through 4,500 hours of clips, organizing the film into a roughly chronological journey from midnight to midnight - than it is a simple fact of life: We are not that different.
So the people whose lives form the spine of "Life" feel familiar, even though we don't know them. Instead, we recognize them, despite their language differences, sometimes exotic diets and, less frequently, strange clothing and work habits. Their hopes and joys, disappointments and fears are our own.
It is no accident that one of the first clips shows a woman awake during the middle of the night because, as she tells it, that is when the veil between this world and the next is thinnest. It's a hint that the film, despite its titular emphasis on life, is not going to ignore the specter of death. One touching sequence shows a father and his young son going through their morning ritual. Part of that routine involves lighting incense at an altar they've set up for the boy's (apparently deceased) mother. It's sweet and sad. The point is that life goes on.
Other images involve gruesome surgery scars and footage taken from the Love Parade, an annual German techno music festival during which several attendees were killed in a stampede last year. From that tragedy, we see someone administering CPR to a victim, and it's unclear if that person made it. Another harrowing and bloody bit shows a cow being slaughtered. There are also images of a creepy, trained monkey wearing a demonic mask, and other dark material.
The film, however, does not linger on this stuff. The balance of the day is overwhelmingly positive.
There are images of people in love, and one deeply inspiring scene of a young gay man coming out to his grandmother by telephone. His bravery - and the grandmother's matter-of-fact acceptance - make it one of the movie's most stirring chapters.
And, yes, there are also a few You-Tubey clips of such feats as a girl solving a Rubik's Cube while using a Hula Hoop, a soaring skydiver and a practitioner of parkour, a breakneck gymnastic discipline involving bouncing off buildings and other urban structures. They're still pretty spectacular.
But "Life in a Day" isn't about spectacle, as a quietly powerful clip near the end of the film illustrates. In it, a young woman films herself, after a long, rainy day of drudge work, complaining to the camera about how disappointed she is that nothing worth filming happened that day. It's a few minutes before midnight, she says, and there's nothing amazing to show for it.
Except this: During her little monologue, she comes to the realization that even on those days on which nothing happened, it's still kind of amazing to be alive. And that's the message of "Life in a Day" - that even a boring gift is a gift.