Life in a Day, a YouTube user-shot feature video, premiered at Sundance and streamed live in select countries yesterday on YouTube (a theatrical release is planned for later this year). It was produced by Ridley and Tony Scott and assembled by Kevin MacDonald together with a team of editors (headed by Joe Walker) from 81,000 raw video clips shot and submitted on 24 July 2010 by the YouTube Community — potentially anyone with a camera and an internet connection.
While MacDonald is best known for The Last King of Scotland, the majority of his work has been in documentary form. He won an Oscar with Arthur Cohn for One Day in September (1999) and his first film was The Making of an Englishman, which was based on his excellent biography of Emeric Pressburger, his grandfather.
His skilled montage creates a world-wide narrative. We follow animals as well as people — goats and goatherds. There are stories we return to: a Korean bicyclist (he refuses to specify North or South) touring the world, whose voice-over narration is superb. As a fly swims in his soup he talks with scientific authority about how they come in different sizes in different countries — we cut to a parallel dimension where someone with a camera in one hand and a trapped fly in the other walks out onto a veranda to set it free. (This is maybe a visual pun on “fly-on-the-wall” camerawork.) Later on, the same cyclist says that when he closes his eyes he can see all the people in the world — he’s in a barber shop when he says this and what we see are portraits of anonymous hairdresser models framing the mirrors.
We also follow the poignant story of a mother recovering from a cancer relapse. We see the stitches from her recent surgery. The camera is mostly operated by her husband and we are sometimes made to question his seemingly invasive gaze, something like Michael Powell’s behavioral psychologist in Peeping Tom (his distraught son cries for him to put the camera away; he doesn’t, but says he’ll give the boy a camera of his own if he promises to go about the day happily). But the mother is always complicit and there is a benevolence — the opposite of the Powell character’s cold voyeurism — which gradually becomes clear.
Bad things do happen. There is a frightening segment documenting the tragedy at the Love Parade in which 21 people were killed in a crowd panic. This is graphic, we see resuscitation efforts and bodies.
Dziga Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera, also about recording the events of a day cinematographically, has been coming up a lot lately in the world of internet cinema. One of the twenty-five videos selected for the Gugghenheim’s YouTube Play Biennal is a participatory video (ongoing, upload here) which plays contemporary, shot-for-shot reinterpretations of The Man with a Movie Camera on a split-screen, alongside Vertov’s original. But this is a limited concept in that it only allows for references, the negation of Vertov’s cinema verité. And on Boxing Day, during a blizzard in Astoria, Jamie Stuart of Filmmaker Magazine shot Idiot with a Tripod (a playful reference to Man with a Movie Camera), which Roger Ebert plugged as Oscar-worthy.
Unlike Man with a Movie Camera, there is no professional cameraman in Life in a Day, at least not necessarily (some of the footage used did come from professionals, like Harvey Glen and Caryn Waechter). Vertov’s ideal of the cameraman as ordinary, working citizen (I don’t think he would have liked the guy with the Lamborghini) is manifested in a new way — today, a great many people have cameras or access to cameras and they are found integrated into other common gadgets like computers and mobile phones. These new technologies and the international dispersion of amateur videographers also made it possible for Life in a Day to truly be shot in one day, whereas Man with a Movie Camera had to be shot over a longer period of time and could only create the illusion of a typical day in Soviet Russia.
The auteur is removed from the production process of Life in a Day — that is, if he exists at all in director Kevin MacDonald. In any case, his control is limited to post-production, though this too was more collaborative than usual, the post-production team having depended heavily on second-unit editors to sift through the overwhelming amount of material (more than 4500 hours of footage).
That doesn’t mean propaganda, or the agendas of the filmmakers, are absent from Life in a Day. A control is still exerted and some images are contrived. A girl in the woods holds up signs with questions suggested by the Life in a Day team as a costumed kid in the background holds a guitar: “What do you fear?” “What do you Love?” “What’s in your pocket?” These questions are used to guide the narrative. Caryn Waechter, one of the professional filmmakers that submitted footage, says: “I just wanted to capture the essence of New York. I got up really early and I decided to go to the Staten Island ferry and I wanted to see the sun come up over Manhattan,” and that’s exactly what she shot. Betsy DelValley delivers a soliloquy in her car, which is intercut with footage of a dramatic thunder storm. Disappointed by her uneventful day she ends up creating something remarkable by simply speaking to her camcorder.