Life in a Day 2020 is a treacly, tone-deaf effort that mostly ignores 2020’s extraordinary troubles in favor of reductive thinking and organizational logic.
Documentaries like Life in a Day 2020 practically cling with desperation to a concept of the universal. Such works insist that there is always substantial, laudable common ground that humanity shares, casting our faults as small obstacles to overcome, nothing that a little peace, love, and understanding can’t solve. In this respect, such thinking feels very much of a more optimistic time, like early 2011, when the first Life in a Day was released. Like its predecessor, the 2020 edition is directed by Kevin Macdonald and compiled from hundreds of thousands of videos commissioned by YouTube, which were filmed by people around the world on the same day: July 25, 2020 (ten years and a day after the first documentary’s day of filming).
Of course, much has changed in the past decade, not to mention the past year, or even the days and weeks leading up to July 25. But in what seems like a concerted effort by Macdonald and his editors, which is at best coddling, at worst actively pernicious, the tumult of the year 2020 and the extraordinary effects of COVID-19 are minimized, only present in sporadic bursts; they exist more as momentary irritants than as the shadow of doom that continues to hang over much of the world. Of course, some locales and nations have only been slightly hampered by the virus, but the fact remains that most of the footage, in public or otherwise, looks as if it could have been shot at any time in the last 15 years, with only the occasional sight of masks marking the specific moment in time that’s of supposedly such paramount importance to this project.
Even more troubling and abject is Life in a Day 2020’s construction. Aside from a few structuring threads, Macdonald is content to organize the film, like its predecessor, according to topics, often conveyed in rapid-fire montages. While these skew universal (and often head-slappingly obvious), like “birth” or “love,” the film moves into genuinely risible territory when it tries to tackle the issues of today, and not just because of the many crowded, unmasked gatherings on display, which makes one wonder how many people must have contracted coronavirus as a direct result of the filming of this documentary. Abandoned spaces and compromised methods of communication due to COVID are contained in a single montage, and the treatment of Black Lives Matter is even worse. All protest footage is relegated to a two-minute sequence, less time than is given to both a proud, anti-mask, MAGA veteran, who gloats over the lack of protests in his suburban neighborhood and proudly shows a letter of commendation signed by former President Trump, and a gleefully vindictive traffic officer handing out tickets on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The whole notion of institutional racism is just another topic to Macdonald, something to be neatly catalogued, unexamined, and forgotten alongside food preparation or, unbelievably, a compilation of oh-so-sick drone shots.
This isn’t to say that it’s impossible for Life in a Day 2020’s concept to be affecting or surprising: in one of two follow-ups from the first film, a mother plays footage of her young son, who died five months before from coronavirus, before moving the camera to show his urn; a Japanese couple breaks up on camera, with the man only belatedly realizing that it wasn’t just an act for the film. But such moments are few and far between, and the effect of Macdonald’s concept is to flatten each individual story, subsuming almost any particulars of individuals or cultures into a banal treacle, fleeing from the most damning moments as soon as possible and otherwise applying its bland inspirational tone without discretion. Naturally, the film ends with a boy speculating about a future humanity where every person’s brain is connected. At this moment, when we are more divided than ever, such a wholehearted endorsement of unthinking unity feels like a slap in the face.
You can currently stream Kevin Macdonald’s Life in a Day 2020 on Youtube.
Originally published as part of Sundance Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 4.