Movies: Life in a Day

The premise of Life in a Day sounds dull if not daunting: YouTube invited its users to upload personal videos shot on July 24th 2010 with the opportunity to see them on the big screen as part of a feature-length documentary. In an age where interactive media and reality shows dominate, a project like this was to be expected – with many imitators sure to follow.

The idea of a feature-length edit of YouTube clips brings to mind shaky camerawork and highly pixelated shots with the end result resembling a visual soup. Apart from the technical issues however, I was even more concerned about the actual content of these videos. Boredom and narcissism hardly ever led to anything worthwhile and, aiming predominantly at a young mainstream audience (YouTube users themselves), I was afraid that the result would look like a cheesy advert: happy people playing with their cameras and fame driven wannabes posing ambitiously in front of the lens…

Surprisingly, Life in a Day overcomes these easily laid traps and makes a rather sweet and honest account of different people’s fragmented, yet worth watching little stories. Credit is all due to Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland, Touching the Void), an undeniably skilled director and experienced documentarian who was given the hard task of creating a narrative out of over 80,000 submissions. Without avoiding videos with darker content, but also able to recognise the –sometimes unconscious- humour in other clips, Macdonald succeeded in creating an admirably balanced, sincere and beautiful film to watch.

Surely, the odd clichéd clip of awkward dates, confessions and other coming-of-age episodes has found its way in, but Macdonald never turns this into an inoffensive, politically correct soap opera. For starters there is a lot of death in the film’s 95 minutes: there is the memory of the dead, the expectance of death and, ultimately, the constant effort to defy death. There is footage of events that led to a stampede causing the deaths of 21 people at the Love Parade festival in Berlin and a scene of a cow’s slaughter that caused some debate.

Then there’s the diversity issue – quite crucial for

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a project claiming to be “a time capsule to show future generations one day in 2010”. Knowing that most responses would come from the western part of the world, the producers sent 400 cameras to locations such as Zambia, Peru and Kenya where people would otherwise probably never hear of the project. The film remains by no means a westernised aspect of ‘a day in life’ (let’s not forget also that YouTube is banned for the over 1.3 billion people of China…) but as Macdonald admits, some of the most beautiful moments in the film came from the footage shot in these countries. It’s because, contrarily to the too self-aware media-savvy westerners, Quechua and African people act naturally in front of the camera transmitting a refreshing sense of authenticity and innocence. It’s the same effect that one gets from films with non-professional actors – that is, of course, if the filmmaker has enough skill to bring out their qualities.

Similarly, in someone else’s hands this project could have turned into a disastrous failure but Macdonald, editor Joe Walker (Hunger, Brighton Rock) and the production team – including Ridley Scott as executive producer – managed to turn this into a masterful cinematic experience instead of a home-video mash-up. Kudos must also be given to Matthew Herbert and Harry Gregson-Williams for creating an intense and mesmerising soundtrack. It is quite a triumph indeed for YouTube to have put such a nice little film in the can and to have it premiered at Sundance Film Festival. Especially since it’s been largely connected to bad or puerile content and the filmmaking community seems to favour competitor platforms such as Vimeo or Dailymotion. YouTube may have gone for prestige rather than profit with this first-of-its-kind project but user-generated movies certainly have great revenue prospect in this multiplatform age. Just in case you were wondering, the 400 plus up-loaders didn’t receive a penny for their contributions…

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