Life in a Day: Kevin Macdonald’s Documentary of Ordinary Lives, Recorded by Ordinary People

Kevin Macdonald’s “Life in a Day,” a documentary that consists of amazing compilation of videos shot by ordinary people, may represent a new way of telling a story.

The original idea at the center of this feature is a product of collaboration between director Ridley Scott’s company Scott Free UK and YouTube.

Macdonald drew his conceptual inspiration from the work of the British artist and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings, best known for making stunningly poetic documentaries about Britain during WWII.  Jennings was also a founder of the 1930s “Mass Observation,” a movement whose goal was to document the strangeness and beauty of ordinary everyday lives.  He would ask volunteers to write detailed diaries of their lives and answer routine questions, such as “What’s on your mantelpiece?  What graffiti did you see today?”

Unlike most non-fictional works, “the aptly titled “Life in a Day” consists of brief segments, shot on a single day, July 24, 2010 by various individuals around the globe, who were asked to depict a moment of their lives.

The response to the project was enthusiastic and overwhelming, and more than 80,000 videos were submitted to YouTube, resulting in huge footage of over 4,500 hours.

Naturally, the videos, hailing from Australia to Africa, vary in theme, style and tone.  The diversity is also in terms of gender and locale; some come from major cities, other from small towns and rural regions, still others from far remote spots (you have never heard about).

Macdonald and his team, especially editors, deserve praise for processing and presenting this assortment of images and sounds in a rather coherent and compelling way.

As always, the main issue is that of selection and omission, because the 90-minute assemblage does not—and is not meant to—represent the totality of footage.  More specifically, what criteria did the filmmakers use for including some particular videos while excluding others.


The end result is a unique documentary, which is by turn ordinary, beautiful, funny, sad, touching, revelatory and even shocking.   Despite the varying quality, contents, and mood of the pieces, the overall impression is that of an upbeat, highly humanistic, existential work that expresses the meaning of being alive.

One of the most versatile filmmakers around, Macdonald has made other intriguing documentaries, such as “One Day in September” and “Touching the Void,” but nothing like “Day in the Life,” which is truly idiosyncratic in nature and structure, and emotional impact.

Explaining the motivation behind this bold, unusual project, Macdonald has said: “I always want to give an audience something new, something they haven’t seen before. And of course experience something new myself.  It keeps you stimulated as a filmmaker to know you are trying something that might fail – that is an experiment.”

I am glad to report that “Life in a Day” is a risky, mesmerizing experiment that has paid off in many different ways.