It probably sounded like a great idea. YouTube, in collaboration with Ridley and Tony Scott's Scott Free Productions, invited its worldwide contributors to submit personal diary footage covering a single Saturday – July 24, 2010. The resulting documentary, "Life in a Day," is stitched together from submissions from people in 192 countries. Director Kevin Macdonald ("The Last King of Scotland") and his editor, Joe Walker, looked at 4,500 hours of video to produce a 95-minute film in which 21 languages are heard on screen.
As high concepts go, this one takes the cake, although the cake is not quite as filling as one might imagine. If Macdonald and Walker actually looked at all that footage, which comes out to 187-1/2 days of nonstop viewing, I suspect the fast-forward and delete buttons got a big workout during the assembling of this film. While watching it, I sometimes wished I had access to those buttons, too. The footage that we see is, as one might expect, a mishmash of the highly personal, the inane, the fascinating, the deeply boring. The filmmakers chart their Saturday, from midnight to midnight, as we watch people rising from bed, brushing their teeth, idling, getting on with their day. YouTube asked its volunteers to answer such questions as "What's in your pocket?" (my favorite: keys to a Lamborghini) and "What do you love?" (cats, food, refrigerators).
As things move along, the stories become more interesting. We see an Indian gardener in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, who sends money back to his family; a location manager in Ukraine; a thief in Moscow. We see cattle being slaughtered. A man expresses fears about his wife's cancer. A South Asian wife, asked if she loves her husband, responds, "Yes, you have to." A female skydiver is photographed in exhilarating free fall.
Best of all is a Korean cyclist who for 10 years has been on a self-appointed mission of pedaling around the globe. In Katmandu, Nepal, he tells us his goal is to see North and South Korea reunited in his lifetime.
He also points out, with great feeling, some local flies that remind him of his homeland. This is carrying nostalgia a bit too far.
For the most part, the footage is upbeat (and sexless). I'm not sure if this is because the filmmakers simply chose the happiest and cleanest material or if this is all that they had to work with. In any case, the relative lack of upsetting footage gives the film a polemical, up-with-people sheen, like one of those old World's Fair documentaries about the brotherhood of man. Despite the fact that it was culled from 4,500 hours of personal diaries, the life in "Life in a Day" is by no means comprehensive. (A longer version of the film will be released on DVD.)
Is the quotidian fascinating simply because it's on YouTube? Is watching a son's first shave any more interesting just because it's "real"? I guess it all depends on how inured you are to the reality-TV experience. But it's worth pointing out that most of this footage was staged. In almost every case, the people involved knew they were being filmed, and in many cases they play to the camera.
The herculean job of organizing all this material means that we are often subjected to montages of similar activities – waking up, walking, and so on – from around the globe. It's a rather simple-minded approach, abetted by a minimalist and sometimes intrusive score, but how else could the filmmakers fashion anything remotely cohesive?
I didn't come away from "Life in a Day" with a sense of awe. It's too overloaded for that. What I took away were some individual moments from people whose lives I wish had played out more. That Korean cyclist deserves an entire movie of his own. I hope he and his flies are reunited. (Not rated.)