On July 24, 10 years ago, around 80,000 people around the world pooled their perspectives for a unique documentary project. Life in a Day, directed by Kevin Macdonald and masterminded by YouTube and Ridley Scott’s production company, Scott Free, was a patchwork snapshot of modern human existence, stitched together from video diaries all taped on the same date, and submitted by (and in some case solicited from) contributors from 192 countries. The end product felt a bit like Samsara, Ron Fricke’s 2011 film-length meditation on nature and humanity, crossed with a Benetton ad: it was rousing in a mostly sentimental way, but with enough cosmic oomph to have made it worth the effort.
The format has been reused a number of times since, usually on a national scale. (Japan in a Day, compiled in March 2012, was filmed on the first anniversary of the devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.) But the coronavirus pandemic must have seemed as good a reason as any to re-run the experiment with its original, global reach.
The result is even more of a Herculean feat of editing than its predecessor. This time, Macdonald and his team had to pare down almost four times as many submissions, which makes sense, now we’re a decade into the social media age, and every other first-world citizen carries a video camera in their pocket. But for all its Earth-encircling logistical whizzery, Life in a Day 2020 lacks two closely related things its forerunner had in spades: novelty, and the element of surprise.
Here’s the unfortunate truth: we’ve already got a pretty good idea of what everyone was up to in 2020, which is “not very much”. Macdonald and his editors go to great pains to show that life went on despite the pandemic – the film opens with a flurry of births, and goes on to take in family Zoom get-togethers, socially-distanced graduations, montages of people staring out of their windows, and even weddings with masked-up bridal parties. But we’re familiar, perhaps even bored, with much of this already, from both the news and doing it ourselves.
A video call looks like a video call no matter where it’s happening – and while that might be a great leveller, it’s hardly the stuff of spiritual uplift. As for the clips of carefree, whooping skydivers, they might be the cinematic definition of Now’s Not the Time, Mate.