Life in a Day

There are three primary structuring devices in Kevin Macdonald’s YouTube-enabled documentary Life in Day (IMDB): The first is a charismatic Korean young man who has traveled to over a hundred countries, riding through most of them on a bicycle. The second is the (somewhat falsified) chronology of the film itself, with the opening sequences featuring people starting their day and all of the morning rituals that entails (shutting off alarms, making coffee, reading the newspaper). The third, of course, is YouTube itself and the global totality of amateur self-expression that the site represents. YouTube was the first video sharing site to make uploading videos appear to be accessible to the masses, and as a result it invited a wide range of self-expression, practices that may be somewhat obscured by YouTube’s more commercial uses.

As I watched Life in Day, in fact, I was reminded of YouTube earlier, mostly unrealized utopian fantasy of global community, one that is based in the shared banalities of everyday life–our morning rituals, our moments of vulnerability–as well as the cultural and economic differences that continue to mark our daily existence. Life in a Day is, perhaps, one of the most ambitious crowdsourcing projects in recent memory, with the film’s director Kevin Macdonald combing through over 4,500 hours’ worth of video recorded in 192 countries, all filmed over the course of a single day July 24, 2010, and uploaded to YouTube. The clips were structured around a small number of questions (what’s in your pocket? what do you love? what do you fear?), and although such questions might invite us to reach for some kind of global “temperature taking,” a recognition of the ways in which our lives and experiences and behaviors are interconnected, but those kinds of observations remained elusive, reinforcing the individualism and narcissism that a site like YouTube often invites.

The film’s narrative approach is established quickly, as it opens with a montage of people performing their morning rituals, including a sequence of people reading their morning newspaper, imagery that evoked (perhaps unintentionally) Benedict Anderson’s concept of imagined communities. These sequences seem to emphasize our commonalities, allowing us to see how we are in fact connected with others. From there we get vignettes of people whose experiences seem designed to touch on something more universal. One father teaches his son to shave. Another directs his son to light an incense candle for their mother. From there, Life in a Day weaves back and forth between montages of individuals engaged in their daily routines and these vignettes, inviting us to draw connections, although many of these connections are incompletely drawn, though most of them seem related to broader themes of birth and death, love and loneliness, community and isolation. We see pregnant women and the birth of a giraffe. We also see a cow getting slaughtered followed by a shot of someone eating spaghetti (an implied argument for vegetarianism, perhaps?).

Two of the more compelling juxtaposed vignettes featured an army wife preparing to Skype her husband, who was stationed in Afghanistan. She gets ready for their “date” by dressing up and seeking to find some way to alleviate her loneliness. This is juxtaposed with a scene filmed by a self-described photojournalist living in Kabul who seeks to challenge our perception of Afghanistan as a war-torn country, showing us people engaging in their daily routines of buying and selling and going to school, and in one case an all-female martial arts class. The implications of the opposition are somewhat unclear, though: are we meant to see the soldier’s actions as improving the situation in Afghanistan? Are we supposed to draw the conclusions that our commonalities should unite us? Again, the answers are frustratingly elusive. Others tell us that they “fear” homosexuals or that people who don’t believe in God will go to hell. Is Life in a Day mocking, endorsing, or merely reporting here? Do we learn anything from the depiction of these pronouncements?

For the most part, the film avoids direct reference to any major political or world event, with the one exception being the tragic deaths of 18 people who were trampled at the Love Parade in Germany, and although it seems important to acknowledge a significant event that happened on the chosen day, the flat tone makes it difficult to even grasp how that event fits into the film’s overall narrative. To that end, this is where the film’s delicate balance between collective authorship (all of the YouTubers who created videos) and individual authorship (Kevin Macdonald’s attempt to craft a narrative) struggled the most. Late last week, there was some discussion of whether the crowdsourcing approach used in Life in a Day was exploitative, and I argued that the non-monetary rewards of self-expression might be more meaningful than any financial compensation the contributors might gain (assuming the film is financially successful). I’m still convinced that the pleasures of participation–of contributing to the activity of making meaning–came through. But I think that the attempt to grasp YouTube through these broad emotive connections prevented the film from making more meaningful insights.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t believe that we can’t make sense of the world through the banalities of everyday life, as Andrew Schenker seems to argue (in fact, I have an essay on Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil and another on Jem Cohen’s Chain that argue the opposite). But I don’t think it’s enough to present us with a decontextualized set of images, as Christopher Campbell reads the film, and assume that will provide us with anything other a murky glimpse of a far more complex human experience. Although the Korean bicyclist imagines a more harmonious world–one in which the two Koreas are, in fact, no longer divided–Life in a Day mostly seems to miss how the banalities of everyday life are structured by larger factors (economy, politics, etc), even while it sees YouTube (at least in its initial You-topian conception) as a partial expression of a desire for a globalized community.

1 Comment

  1. Schmüdde Said,

    August 9, 2011 @ 11:34 am

    Great review! I cited you in a related post on my blog:

    Keep up the great work – I like the comparison to Sans Soleil.


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