Toronto teen Sasha shaves for the first time in "Life in a Day." (National Geographic Entertainment )
"Life in a Day" is like a man-(woman and child)-on-the-street interview gone insanely and inventively viral. Carved out of cyber-reality and global in reach, this fast-paced documentary is shaped as much by Internet savvy as traditional filmmaking, which doesn't make the experience of it any less satisfying, or the implications any less provocative.
As with all things Web-driven, it's a numbers game and "Life in a Day" is no exception. The documentary was fashioned by director Kevin Macdonald ("The Last King of Scotland") and editor Joe Walker ("Hunger") out of contributions from roughly 80,000 directors-for-a-day who took up the call via YouTube for a home-cooked slice of their life. Ultimately the vision of nearly 500 of them made the director's cut and the credit list. The more than 4,500 hours of video submitted were culled down over many months to a 90-minute flashcard style story that tries to capture the rhythms and unravel the rhymes of a single 24-hour period.
The specific day chosen was July 24, 2010. You'll likely want to go back to last year's calendar at some point to see if you can dredge up any memories of how you spent it and if it was anywhere near as exhilarating and surprising as Macdonald's film suggests. The fact that we all experienced that day is part of what gives the documentary an unusual kind of relatability.
Focusing on a single day gives the film an equally familiar shape and form. Beginning with videos that start pre-dawn then moving through morning, afternoon and evening — images of people waking, dressing, working, playing, eating flow by — the rituals that define a day begin to emerge. Beyond an extraordinary range of cultures, terrain and styles reflected, which are captivating on their own, the film stands as a stirring reminder of how ordinary and yet eclectic humanity can be. If "Life in a Day" is any measure, we are a quirky, likable, unpredictable and yet predictable bunch.
The guidelines the filmmakers threw out made for a very open-ended foundation for the film: what's your story, what have you got in your pockets, what do you fear. Monsters and politics were popular choices on the fear front — though whether they are different beasts is left unsaid.
As the videos cut from city to country, from high tech to Third World, what emerges is a human population mystified, captivated and sometimes horrified by what can happen in a given day. The story is told through the voices of the contributors, but mostly it's the images that do the heavy lifting — the tranquillity of a moment as giant soap bubbles blow and bounce across a pristine lake, the crush of humanity that kills in a protest turned riot, a lone man's desolation in the night, a new mother's hope in a new day. Stitching it all together are the fundamentals — teeth brushed, breakfast cooked, loved ones kissed and feet, so many different feet, rushing rushing rushing all over the world. We are all in a hurry to get somewhere, it seems.
The film may be the most hopeful yet from Macdonald, a director who's made his reputation by digging into the more corrupted and conflicted side of human nature with "One Day in September," his Oscar-winning documentary on the 1972 Munich massacre of Israeli Olympic athletes still among his best. Still, the lightness he's unearthed in "Life in a Day" has an earthy and at times euphoric appeal. Helping on that front is the editing artistry of Walker (and an expansive team), the man in charge of all that splicing and dicing keeps things moving at an entertaining clip.
Though Macdonald says he was inspired by the "mass observations" that artist-filmmaker Humphrey Jennings did of Britons in the 1930s, the film feels more a creature of the "We Live in Public" possibilities Web wildcat Josh Harris started monkeying with in the early '90s. Although personal videos made public have become almost as much a part of daily life as the teeth brushing and the rest captured by "Life in a Day," the documentary would be nothing without the thousands of ordinary folk who took the time to participate in this project. As it happens, the world community had a lot of interesting things on its mind, but it still took filmmakers like Macdonald and Walker to help us say it with feeling.