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Explorer Nick Roden in a scene from the documentary "Life in a Day."

AP Photo/Nat Geo

2.5 out of 4 stars


Most of us, usually at the dawn of our kiddie consciousness, have entertained the same thought: that the world is a big place and, at any given instant, day here is night elsewhere, one is waking and another is sleeping, some are being born and many are dying. Of course, it's the sort of big thought that makes a small point, which is precisely the problem with Life in a Day. A documentary that looks to give this notion visual form, it strives awfully hard for depth but, more often than not, comes off too shallow.

The day in question is July 24, 2010, when various people around the globe were invited to film their lives and upload the handiwork to that most democratic of studios, YouTube. From there, director Kevin Macdonald had the unenviable task of compressing the reams of footage, over 4,500 hours from 192 countries, down to feature length. Not surprisingly, collage is his weapon of choice, resulting in an accumulation of snippets - a few recurring, most not - arranged in chronological order, from a stroke past midnight to a stroke before.

So we being in the wee hours under a full moon, with images of dark-skinned feet slipped into cheap rubber sandals, then plodding off to their quotidian toil. Back in the USA, a black American speaks of that daily grind from his nightly perch - a small couch in a cramped apartment, an unseen baby wailing in the background. If the tone seems sombre, not to worry. A brighter note is just a cracked egg away. Cue the up-and-at-'em montage: toilets flushing, bacon sizzling, faces getting shaved, goats getting milked. Yes, the film's mood bounces about erratically, although, I suppose, so does the world's.

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Consequently, shards of gloom vie with sparks of optimism, sometimes in the same frame. For instance, one of the recurring segments shows a cancer-stricken mother plodding bravely along the hoped-for road to recovery. Elsewhere, child's play is set against child labour. A privileged tyke swirls a hula hoop while, in far-off Peru, another plies his trade as a shoeshine boy and later shows off the proud fruits of his earnings - a shiny laptop. And when the question is randomly posed, "What's in your pocket?," the answers run the gamut: a cellphone, a syringe, a rosary, a pistol and, sadly too often, nothing.

Naturally, love and its ritualized companion, marriage, pop up in their different cultural guises. In the West, a man drops to his knees to propose; in Africa, a woman drops to hers in deference. Yes, sometimes the contrasts are striking. On other occasions, though, they're just strikingly obvious and, around the midpoint, Macdonald seems to grow day-weary himself as his search for resonance begins to feel laboured, especially in a strained sequence that combines American combatants in Afghanistan, an Afghan family in Kabul, and a Wisconsin bride tearfully Skyping her soldier hubby. Again, big idea, tiny point.

At the other extreme, if your taste in YouTube runs to the comic, be assured that some of the included segments would look right at home on an episode of Funniest Home Videos. However, as night descends once more, the tone reverts to the philosophical when a lone, and lonely, woman laments that, for her, Life in a Day has proved merely to be another day in a life. Still, like the multitudes before her - all those who drew on cave walls or etched initials in trees or tweeted into cyberspace - she's content with the subtext that props up every message ever sent: "I just want people to know that I'm here."

Life in a Day

  • Directed by Kevin Macdonald
  • Classification: PG

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About the Author
Film critic

Rick Groen is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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