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All human life is here

Life in a Day is one of those films that shouldn’t work at all, and actually doesn’t work on paper.

18 June 2011

12:00 AM

18 June 2011

12:00 AM

Life in a Day is one of those films that shouldn’t work at all, and actually doesn’t work on paper.

Life in a Day is one of those films that shouldn’t work at all, and actually doesn’t work on paper. On paper, it sounds boring as hell. Person One: ‘Shall we go and see the film that’s essentially a collection of YouTube clips?’ Person Two: ‘No. It sounds boring as hell.’ And yet it isn’t boring as hell, or boring at all. Instead, it is fascinating and moving and funny and uplifting and satisfying and such a stunning love letter to humankind it will truly warm the cockles of your heart, should they need warming. (Mine do, even in June.)

This is, apparently, the largest crowd-sourced art project in history — see? See how it doesn’t work on paper? — and has been put together by a crack team including Ridley and Tony Scott (producers) director Kevin Macdonald (Touching the Void, Last King of Scotland) and legendary editor Joe Walker.


The project kicked off when Macdonald asked YouTube users to record one day of their lives (24 July 2010) or any part of that day. They could shoot anything. Their washing routine. Their commute. Their kids. Frying an egg. Eating cheese. Anything. And, if they wanted, they could also answer the following three questions: what do you most love? What do you most fear? What’s in your pocket?

The call was heard, and 80,000 videos were submitted, from 120 countries, amounting to 4,500 hours of film which, I think, adds up to six months of non-stop watching. This was then reduced to 250 hours by a team of editors, and then to 90 minutes by Macdonald and Walker. Nope, I can see I’ve yet to sell it to you; might even have lost you at ‘largest crowd-sourced art project in history’ and have yet to get you back. But somehow — somehow — Macdonald et al. have spliced the clips together in such a way that they’ve produced a whole that is not only unified, but also peculiarly magical and affecting. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll see a young man trying to tell his mother he’s gay over the phone, and you will be rooting for him. A clip of just a few seconds, yet you’re emotionally there and involved. It’s miraculous.

Starting at midnight on one day, under a full moon, and finishing at midnight the next, the procession of images seems random but must have been ruthlessly organised. There are some fixed segments put together as collages — washing routines, getting-up routines, scenes of cooking and eating accompanied by African women singing and pounding grain into flour — and others that are allowed to go on for longer, like the 15-year-old being taught to shave by his father, which sounds even more boring than hell — what is more boring than hell? Stringfellows? — but beautifully captures the transition from childhood to adulthood.

This is a film that can have you smiling one second (the man who faints when his child is born; sorry, but it’s just so funny) and choking back the tears the next. (Man to his wife who has cancer, when she asks him what he fears: ‘I feared you’d get cancer and you did. I feared it would come back, and it did. Now I am fearless.’) This is a film that is joyful (children playing in sprinklers) and distressing (a cow going down in an abattoir) and mundane (doing your teeth) and extraordinary (astonishing sky-diving footage). It covers everything from birth — I’m not kidding you, you’ve never seen waters break until you’ve seen a giraffe have a baby — through to adolescence, weddings, war, death, prejudice and the army wife who does full hair and make-up and puts on her best dress to talk to her husband over the computer.

Why does it work? Because it reminds us we’re all in it together, under the one moon? Because it finds the extraordinary in the ordinary? Because it has obviously been made with such warmth and affection and is a celebration of all decent human qualities, no matter how mad they might seem? (I’m thinking particularly about the Korean man who hopes to reunite Korea by cycling round the world and will not be put off even though, as he notes, ‘I have been hit by a car six times. I have had surgery five times.’) Or perhaps it’s because by seeing how fascinating the banalities of other people’s lives are we realise our own lives are not as banal as we’ve always thought. Going to work is dull, but a montage of many people’s feet as they go to work is surprisingly cool. Nope, I can see I’ve yet to sell it to you. Tell you what, do us all a favour, and just go see it. It’ll save no end of trouble.


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