Review: ‘Life in a Day 2020,’ the sequel to director Kevin Macdonald’s documentary compiling a day in the lives of people around the world

February 2, 2021

by Carla Hay

A scene from “Life in a Day 2020” (Photo courtesy of YouTube Originals)

“Life in a Day 2020”

Directed by Kevin Macdonald

The movie has several languages in subtitles.

Culture Representation: Taking place in various locations around the world, the documentary “Life in a Day 2020” features racially diverse groups of people (white, black, Asian, Latino and indigenous) who filmed themselves and their surroundings on July 25, 2020.

Culture Clash: The documentary shows people with contrasting lifestyles, socioeconomic backgrounds, religious customs and political ideologies.

Culture Audience: “Life in a Day 2020″ will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching documentaries that are more about quick montages than in-depth profiles.

A scene from “Life in a Day 2020″ (Photo courtesy of YouTube Originals)

On July 24, 2010, director Kevin Macdonald had thousands people around the world film any aspect of their lives on that day. With the help of a large team of editors and other filmmakers, the resulting footage was compiled and edited into the quick-cutting montage documentary “Life in a Day,” which was released in 2011. Ten years after Life in a Day” was filmed, Macdonald revisited the same concept in the same short-attention-span style, but this time the participants filmed on July 25, 2020. The edited results are in the documentary “Life in a Day 2020,” which had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. “Life in a Day 2020” is a sequel that proves that the novelty has definitely worn off of crowdsourcing cinematography, but the movie can be mildly recommended for people who are curious or bored.

According to a written prologue in “Life in a Day 2020,” Macdonald and his team received 324,000 videos from 192 countries. “Life in a Day 2020” has much less appeal than its predecessor documentary because in the 10 years since the original “Life in a Day” was filmed, millions of more people around the world have been putting videos of their daily lives on the Internet. “Life in a Day 2020” is a YouTube Originals documentary, so the movies has a predictable montage of YouTubers who want to be famous. It feels a bit too meta.

People who saw the original “Life in a Day” back in 2011 would be hard-pressed to remember much about it, unless they were in the movie or personally knew someone who was. A frustration with the original movie and the sequel is that they both jump around so fast that these quick cuts don’t allow the viewer enough time to really get to know anyone in the documentary. It’s definitely a case of cramming in as much as possible, with quality sometimes sacrificed for quantity.

However, there’s still enough to hold people’s interest if viewers want to take a whirlwind cinematic ride around the world. Just don’t expect the movie to indicate which countries are being shown in each piece of footage, or the names of people in the footage, unless someone specifically says where they are, or you can identify what language is being spoken. There are no written indicators to guide viewers about the locations of almost all of the footage in the movie. The end credits show a long list of people who appear in the film, but it isn’t much help because the names aren’t put to faces.

The documentary’s editing is random and all over the place. Some parts of the movie are montages of people from different parts of the world doing the same things, such as women giving birth, people praying, or people at weddings. Occasionally, some people are seen in the film in one scene and are revisited later in the movie, such as a young man in an unknown U.S. state who’s standing near a train track and says he has a goal to film seven trains before the end of the day. It’s not exactly compelling or suspenseful, because you know he wouldn’t be in the movie if he didn’t reach that goal.

A lot of the movie is about showing kids and families at play. The family scenes are fairly typical, very tame, and almost always harmonious. (There are no big family squabbles in this movie.) A Southeast Asian father in India lovingly talks about how today is his daughter’s birthday. An American mother wakes up her kids with a smile and remarks how they have their phones in their hands while sleeping in bed. She says, “This is the generation we live in, where kids go to sleep holding a cell phone.”

There are large sections of the movie that show love and romance. Couples (gay and straight) are seen kissing, in a montage from various locations. Girlfriends coo, “I love you” to boyfriends who are filming them.

And in case people think the documentary only shows love-dovey relationships, there’s a scene with a woman who calmly breaks up with her boyfriend while he’s filming her cooking at a stove. And then she bursts into tears. You have to wonder who sent in this footage for the documentary. (She probably did.)

In another scene, a man proposes to his girlfriend and she won’t give him an answer, but you can tell she wanted to say no, but not on camera. Sitting by himself in his car after this semi-rejection, the man says that all relationships goes through ups and downs. If director Macdonald makes a 2030 version of “Life in a Day,” who wants to bet this couple won’t be together by then?

Speaking of follow-ups, there are a few people who were in the original “Life in a Day” that make a reappearance in “Life in a Day 2020.” One of these appearance is memorable and heartbreaking, while the other is innocuous. The re-appearance that’s not very special is of an unidentified boy who’s about 11 or 12 years old, who’s sitting in a diner-styled restaurant somewhere in Asia with his father, stepmother and a girl who’s about 9 or 10 and could be his sister or stepsister. All the boy says is that he was in the first “Life in a Day” movie and his father had remarried since that movie was filmed.

The other reappearance shows an American mother watching “Life in a Day” on her TV and fast-forwarding to the scene of her son Alexander Lucas (whose nicknames were Alex and ATG), who was 14 when she filmed herself waking him up in his bed. In “Life in a Day 2020,” the mother, with her voice almost breaking into tears, shows where he is now: His ashes are in an urn. And she says he died of complications from COVID-19. The documentary epilogue shows that “Life in a Day 2020” is dedicated to Lucas.

The COVID-19 pandemic is given some screen time, but not as much as you might think. There’s a montage of funerals for people who’ve died of COVID-19. And throughout the film, there are shots of people wearing masks. But then, there are other scenes of people partying in groups, not wearing masks and not social distancing, as if they’re not in the middle of a deadly pandemic.

Speaking of not wearing masks during the pandemic, there’s a scene of an American man in his 30s who’s shown filming himself jogging in his neighborhood and then stopping at his house and pointing to an American flag. While he looks around, he proudly states that he won’t wear a mask and no one is protesting against him because of it. No one is protesting because he’s on an empty street with no one else nearby.

A middle-aged American man, who says he lost everything because of the COVID-19 pandemic, is shown living out of his van. He says homeless people like him are “the invisible people.” Later, he finds comfort in flying some remote controlled toy aircraft, and he says that this activity helps him take his mind off of his problems.

“Life in a Day 2020” gives a bare minimum of screen time to all the political and social unrest that was happening around the world in July 2020. The U.S. presidential election or any divisive political issue that was big news in July 2020 is treated like a minefield that the documentary largely wants to avoid. The Black Lives Matter movement gets less screen time in the documentary than montages of people acting goofy in their homes.

If there’s one major flaw of “Life in a Day 2020,” it’s that there should have been more footage for things that look specific to 2020. The worldwide racial reckoning that reached a fever pitch in July 2020 is barely acknowledged. There’s a quick scene of a shrine to George Floyd outside of the place where he died in Minneapolis. And there are a few African Americans throughout the movie who talk about police brutality and racism, including the deaths of Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

A woman in her 20s films herself in a car trying not to get emotional about a police department refusing to release video of what happened when a young, unarmed black man died in police custody. She says she has two brothers who died this way. And in another scene, an African American man in his 20s drives past a house covered in Confederate flags. “This is something I have to deal with every day,” he says in a rueful voice.

Meanwhile, in another part of the movie, an avid Donald Trump supporter named Gerardo Duran, a former first class sergeant in the U.S. military, is at his home and proudly shows off a framed 2017 letter that was signed from Donald and Melania Trump. In the letter (which clearly shows his name), Duran gets birthday greetings and a thank you for his military service. He also shows photos of himself on duty when he was in the military.

And for comic relief, the documentary includes selfie video footage of a traffic officer in Los Angeles as he gives out parking tickets. There’s a montage of people whining or giving excuses for why they shouldn’t get a ticket, but he remains unmoved and gives them tickets anyway. The camera shows him muttering sarcastic remarks to himself about the types of people he has to deal with when he’s working. No word on what this traffic officer’s boss will think when seeing this footage.

And then there’s another scene that’s unintentionally funny. A middle-aged American man, who appears to be some kind of New Age counselor with symbols painted on face, is leading a small group meeting. In the middle of his spacey babbling about how he’s such a giving person, he starts to cry. “I’ve been giving for 50 years, and it’s like medicine for me,” he sobs. It looks like a comical parody of a hipster “soul cleansing” session, but it’s obvious that everyone there was being serious.

Something that’s a little odd about “Life in a Day 2020” is that there’s a lot of footage of women being filmed by their boyfriends or husbands, not the other way around. It definitely gives the movie a very “male gaze.” Seriously, out of all the thousands of hours of footage that was sent for this documentary, the filmmakers couldn’t find enough footage of women taking videos of their significant others to balance things out? Women can hold a phone that has a videocamera just as easily as men can.

One of the people who gets more than one scene in the movie is an American woman being filmed by her husband or love partner (who’s not seen on camera), as she goes into a medical facility to get the results of her pregnancy test while he waits in the car. When she comes out of the building and goes back to the car, she tells him that she’s not pregnant and then she bursts into tears. He comforts her and tells her that they’ll keep trying to get pregnant, and then they talk about possibly going through in vitro fertilization treatments. Later in the movie, she has cheered up a little bit and talks about how becoming a mother is the most important thing she wants to do in her life.

And there’s another emotionally moving scene of loved ones dealing with some medical issues. A wheelchair-using father and his daughter, who’s about 7 or 8 years old, talk about the future. (They sound like they have Australian or New Zealand accents.) He says he wants to get well and the daughter shows optimism that he will. There are also some scenes of people in hospitals or in their homes as invalids. The movie doesn’t slow down long enough to say what kinds of illnesses these people have.

On a lighter note, there are a few eccentrics who are in the documentary. An elderly man is shown introducing the spiders in his home, who all have names that he’s given them. A transgender woman somewhere in Asia struts her stuff and holds her head high, even when she is taunted by a few men on the street. And then she bursts into song.

There are also several predictable scenes of people in all types of environments interacting with their pets (dogs, cats, birds, goats, etc.) and sometimes treating the pets like humans. And there’s a montage of wildlife too, on land and in open waters. There’s also footage of farm animals that are being handled as future meat for people. (Look away if the sight of helpless baby chickens on a conveyor belt is too much for you.)

The documentary has a few references to environmental issues. There are many scenes showing places that range from literally dumpy (such as a garbage landfill) to beautifully scenic and pristine, and everything in between. In Nigeria, a man is shown in the middle of a flood and worries about what will happen to his home. And since July is winter in some parts of the world, the seasonal landscapes look different, depending on the country. It’s too bad the documentary doesn’t tell viewers the specific city or country of where each scene takes place.

Ultimately, “Life in a Day 2020” is a documentary that looks a lot like a compilation of social media videos from around the world. Back in 2011, it might have looked more fascinating. But now, smartphones have become so common that anyone with a smartphone can become a filmmaker and put the footage on the Internet. If people really want to see everyday lives around the world, they can do that anytime on the Internet without waiting 10 years for another documentary about it.

YouTube Originals will premiere “Life in a Day” on February 6, 2021.

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