It’s time to take a step away from my normal book reviews, and turn attention towards film – I don’t write about films very often, because this isn’t stuck-in-a-box-office – and so when I do, it tends to be films which I’ve loved, and want to encourage other people to see. So it should come as no surprise that this review of Life in a Day is almost wholly positive – I think Life in a Day is one of the best films I’ve ever seen, and certainly the best non-fiction film. It’s almost a documentary, but not quite.
The producer, Ridley Scott, and his team asked people on YouTube to contribute a video about their life on Saturday 24th June 2010 [I mean July, thanks Liz!]. There were a few questions – what do you love? what do you fear? what’s in your pocket – but in general they were given free rein. And not just in the West, but around the world; 400 cameras were sent to the developing world. They received over 4500 hours of film, from 81,000 contributors, in 192 countries. This was edited to a few hundred submissions, and turned into the amazing film Life in a Day, which I saw yesterday and want to watch again, right away.
The film is vaguely both chronological and thematic. 24th July turned out to be a full moon, so there were some shots of that, and we move through people’s early morning routines – including a moving one of a toddler and his father in a hugely untidy apartment, I think maybe in Thailand. Towards the end of the film it was night again, but in between the pieces were cut together in more subtle ways, the only obvious editorial intrusions being when several people together answered what they fear (“ALL kinds of monsters), what they love (“My refrigerator – it just stays in the corner and keeps its mouth shut”), and what they have in their pockets (a lot of guns…)
What made Life in a Day so brilliant, and not mawkish as I’d feared, is that almost all the clips show rather than tell. I expected lots of grainy videos of British teenagers whining, but most of the contributions were collaborative – people filming other people, or taking the camera on a tour. Most felt quite professional too – or, at least, the people owned a tripod. Camera professionalism didn’t ruin spontaneity, or make the clips feel fake. Indeed, probably my favourite video went a bit awry – a man films his wife holding their baby twins, and is in the midst of quoting Walt Whitman when his wife interjects “This is so self-indulgent – I’ve been looking after them ALL day, will you please stop?” and all the while he is trying to remember whether the Whitman line has the word ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ in it.
For there are equal amounts of laughter and tears in this film, often provoked by the same clips. For instance – the man videoing the birth of his baby (moving) who faints in the process (amusing!) Alongside births (both human and giraffe) there are marriages, a proposal, and pregnancy – but the only deaths are seen at a distance, in the tragic events of the Love Parade festival in Germany. For some people and families 24th July 2010 was especially significant, and these moments are included – but the more interesting moments of the film are entirely normal – whatever that means for the people and cultures involved. A boy has his first shave in the West; African women sing while preparing food; in one of my other favourite moments, we get a quick glimpse of a balut cart in the Philippines – which brought back memories for me.
And then there is the triptych of US soldiers in Afghanistan; a war wife dressing herself up to Skype her husband there, and crumbling before the monitor once the conversation is over; an Afghani photo-journalist taking the camera around the Afghanistan that doesn’t make the news.
It sounds cliched, but Life in a Day really did make me marvel at how wonderfully and fearfully made humans are – how precious lives are, and how poignant the mundane can be. Going with a cynical mindset would ruin the film, but you don’t need to be as easily teary as I am to make this a moving and memorable experience. Some critics have said that the film is too upbeat, but I don’t think it could be called that – there are plenty of sad moments, among the happy and the hopeful. It’s also the most compelling film I’ve ever seen. The film is as varied as life is – and, as a stunningly ambitious experiment to capture the whole world’s life in a day, I think the film has succeeded as well as is humanly possible.
Watch the trailer below: