“What was life like on planet Earth on July 24, 2010?” Setting out to answer that question, Kevin Macdonald’s crowd-sourced collage Life in a Day reaches some pretty unstartling conclusions: Unless you were starving to death or living in Afghanistan, it was probably pretty fucking boring. Crafted from 4,500 hours of user-submitted YouTube videos, all taken from a single day, the film records such personally significant moments as a teen’s first shave and a tearful man in his hospital bed reflecting on the successful heart surgery he just underwent, but without any prior familiarity with these people’s lives, the snippets fail to shift the emotive import from subject to viewer. Furthermore, the sympathies that these scenes depend on are undercut by the unchecked narcissism of the people involved, so that even the rare moment of genuine pathos (a young man calling his grandmother to explain that his male “friend” is actually something more) leaves us wondering why exactly the subject felt the need to document such a private moment and broadcast it to the world.
For all the dissonant notes that emerge in the heterogeneous footage (war, violence, disease), the film seems principally concerned with humankind’s need to perpetuate itself, both through an obsession with documenting itself on video and via procreation. If the former method is never subjected to any kind of critical interrogation (unless a kid telling his parents to turn off the camera counts), than the latter goal is positively venerated. While a lengthy segment focusing on love gives token play to gay life and strikes a moment of discord detailing sexist African customs, it fails to conceive of romance in any terms other than traditional notions of hetero coupling and the subsequent desire for children. In fact, babies figure disproportionately in the film’s footage, while the lack of offspring, represented by a tearful woman’s breakdown over her inability to conceive, suggests that motherhood is the ultimate goal of female life.
Only a few snippets escape the uncritical narcissism that the film celebrates and, despite their unimaginative employment, they stand as something of a rebuke to the film’s dominant images. While most of the non-Western footage is there to show off “exotic” customs which nevertheless confirm mankind’s common humanity, a segment in which a deeply impoverished Middle Eastern widower bemoans his inability to feed his 13 children serves as a riposte to both the film’s general air of positivity and its celebration of baby-making. Another segment finds an Afghan photojournalist taking us on a tour of Kabul, revealing not a war-torn shithole, but a vibrant city in which people go about their daily lives. Still, as useful as this sequence is (it’s one of the few that isn’t focused exclusively on the self), it’s put to somewhat dubious use in the context of the film’s organization.
First, the sequence confirms the project’s trite running thesis that people are more or less the same everywhere (or, more precisely, they’re the same everywhere, only better—or at least richer—in the West), a theme made mind-numbingly obvious through montages of people across the world waking up, getting out of bed, eating lunch. Second, the Afghan footage is intercut with shots of the wife of a U.S. soldier video-chatting with her Middle Eastern-stationed hubby. As a juxtaposed collection of footage, the sequence is both far too obvious in its construction and completely useless. There’s little real connection between the cutesy private communications exchanged by husband and wife and the bustling markets of Kabul, except of course the obvious desire to capture both sides of the U.S.-Afghan involvement. There’s little we can do critically with such a sequence and that’s precisely the point. Life in a Day isn’t here to offer a dialectic reading of global politics. Its interests are far simpler: Drawing on a horde of pedestrian user-generated content, embracing a faux-populism of the least committed variety, the film aims to celebrate a humanity that may embrace different customs and beliefs, but is essentially the same all over. In Macdonald’s project, what ultimately unites mankind is its banality.