Life-writing, literature, popular culture.
I’ve just watched and enjoyed the crowd-sourced documentary Life in a Day (2011), directed by Kevin MacDonald and produced by Ridley Scott. The film is a collage of videos all shot on 24 July 2010 and submitted to YouTube. Combined together, they promise to tell “the story of a single day on earth” (or so the tagline claims).
With no voiceover or dominant plot, the film is structured around the passing of time — cue several shots of the moon and sun, of clocks, of meals, and of daily rituals. “Characters” and “stories” recur to provide a sense of coherence and cohesion — such as Abel the shoe-shine boy, Okhwan Yoon the Korean cyclist, or the unnamed American woman whose cancer has returned — and throughout there is a concern to show semblance, to highlight the connections and continuities that bridge cultural and ethnic difference. Shared experiences and behaviours — such as love, laughter, death and the raising of a family — become narrative threads that connect the film’s disparate parts, suggesting the shrinking distance between us in this ever-more global village.
But diversity remains the keynote. Stark divisions are present in the film’s juxtaposition of third world and first world, east and west, poor and rich. But while the poverty on display is, at times, truly shocking, the insistent and repeated comparisons do little to counter an “orientalising” gaze that (re)imagines non-Western cultures in terms of the undeveloped, immature and nobly savage.
The result is a grand — or “meta” — life narrative that transcends (while it sustains) difference, that uses the particular life experiences of individual contributors to emphasise the universal and cyclical nature of human history. The aim is a noble one and the film certainly provides a valuable, multifaceted “snapshot” of one day in 2010, despite the inevitable shaping influence of editing and post-production.
On the 12 November 2011, the experiment begins again. In collaboration with the same creative team, the BBC are asking people to “pick up a camera and film [their] day”, to create “a lasting portrait” of Britain in a Day. Following in the footsteps of Mass Observation, and earlier projects such as the One Day For Life (1987) photograph collection, the film will, no doubt, prove to be a fascinating virtual time-capsule (not to mention the extensive video archive that will result).
It will be interesting, however, to see which “characters” and “plots” make the final cut. What social and cultural concerns will be granted an airing? What images of nationhood, of multiculturalism, will be presented? In short, what will be the grand — or “meta”– life narrative of Britain in a Day?
[Update: Check out Joe Moran’s Blog on Britain In A Day and its Mass Observation roots — click here.]