You’re not likely to find a more jarring — and ultimately exhausting — collision of high pretension and low execution at Sundance this year than the crowdsourced YouTube doc “Life in a Day 2020.” The internet video behemoth foretold a new era of DIY filmmaking when it launched in 2005, and just five years later it tried give an artistic patina to the amateur works that defined the site with “Life in a Day,” an assortment of uploaded clips given some coherence by veteran documentarian Kevin Macdonald. The result was meant to be profound, a glimpse at the beauty of the ordinary. But it was just ordinary.
A decade later, YouTube and Macdonald have doubled down with “Life in a Day 2020,” which leans into the gravitas — and what better year to get “deep” than 2020? Over 320,000 amateur videographers from 192 countries uploaded videos shot on July 25, 2020, and the footage could be anything. Some are performance works: a Black guy sings the Schubert Lied “The Elf King” in crisp, precise German (he’s a talent, but like all participants, uncredited); one teenage Italian girl poses coquettishly in the woods while talking about love and how great it is to be 18.
Most clips feature people showing their “real” lives or talking about them. Some are far-flung indeed: a Sakha man from the far north of Siberia — thawed, being that it’s July 25 — wanders shirtless through an ankle-deep stream and pronounces his desire to live until 100. A young Eastern European girl (“Life in a Day 2020” includes no captions that might allow you get your bearings) milks a goat. An American military vet films himself running while proudly proclaiming that he’s outside without a mask — then, back home, he shows off a decoration signed by President Trump. And some juxtapositions simply puzzle: why does footage showing a man repairing shoes, something he’s done for 43 years he says, cut directly into a grim scene of an Islamic undertaker washing a body for burial?
The pandemic doesn’t explicitly factor into “Life in a Day 2020” as much as you think it might; it probably accounts for the sheer number of videos featuring people doing quotidian things at home. Or is that just the nature of YouTube? Certainly, it’s striking to see anyone roaming about outside in more remote locations, where the pandemic had less of an impact. And one guy “who’s lost everything” because of the pandemic and lives in his car certainly elicits our sympathy.
Macdonald, and three credited editors, structures the footage around weighty themes. He opens with the theme of birth, and footage of a woman standing while pushing out her baby follows. It recalls a similar moment in Dziga Vertov’s silent 1929 collage “Man with a Movie Camera,” something Macdonald clearly strives for here with his careful grouping of elemental subjects. “Birth” is followed by “dawn,” images of people starting their day. “Work,” “love,” “proposals,” “food,” “protest,” “humanity’s affect on nature,” “faith,” and “celebration” are among those that come after.
And “death,” as in life, is simply unavoidable. The single most moving and memorable bit of footage is a clip of a bereaved mother — holding the camera and not appearing herself — aiming her lens at at TV, where she’s playing a clip of her son featured in the “Life in a Day” from 10 years ago. She then says she wants to introduce her son now. The camera pivots and trains itself on a funerary urn. He died in February 2020 from Covid-19, she says. Just as powerful is a young African American girl speaking directly into the camera about how two of her brothers died in police custody.
These are the kinds of moment that will stay with you forever. “Life in a Day 2020” needed many more, but most people experiencing the highest highs and the lowest lows of their lives probably aren’t in the mood to capture them on video. In this age of social-media vanity, the highest highs are more likely — but that raises the question of why YouTube would back this film rather than Instagram or Twitter. We’re not getting “real life,” anyway; with Instagram and its bevy of preening Influencers, you might end up with more carefully composed images instead of these endless shaky cam and selfie close-ups.
Macdonald clearly aspires to art. “Man with a Movie Camera” and many of the “city symphony” documentaries of the 1920s aimed for something similar: a chance to capture real life, to see what’s really around you and find the poetry and profundity. He has directed many excellent documentaries, including the Oscar-winning “One Day in September,” but here he’s a curator assembling YouTube playlists.
So many of these images are exactly what you’d expect to see on YouTube. Animal videos in “Life and a Day” include kittens lapping milk from a shared bowl, a Russian boy and his pet rat Rex, and the aforementioned goat, which throws a fit and scampers off before the little girl who’s milking her can finish the job. Is humanity this boring? Can our fellow humans show us nothing new?
“Life in a Day 2020” is similar to the many montages favored by the Oscars each year, but those images are professionally framed by the industry’s finest craftspeople. The closest analogue is “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” a show that also groups its footage based on theme — “vacation silliness,” “birthday party mishaps” — but “Life in a Day 2020” isn’t funny, or memorable. Individual videos go viral; playlists don’t.
Macdonald, from whom a documentary on any other subject would be far more warmly greeted, has now made two of these “Life in a Day” movies. To borrow from Oscar Wilde: to make one “Life in a Day” movie is a misfortune. To make two, carelessness.
“Life in a Day 2020” will premiere for free on YouTube on Saturday, February 6.