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Life In A Day: Kevin McDonald

The director of the stunning feature-length film shot by members of the public talks redemption, phenomenology and what it means to be human

Life In A Day is an emotional insight into the human condition consisting entirely of footage supplied by thousands of people across the globe, all of who responded to a call put out on YouTube to document one day in their life and answer a number of simple questions, such as ‘who do you love?’ The ambitious project evokes a powerful sense of the extraordinary moment, panning across twenty-four hours on earth and taking into its sway cancer victims, world travellers, impoverished street children, mask-wearing spider monkeys and spoiled cali brats. Directed by Kevin McDonald (The Eagle, Touching The Void) and edited down from a staggering 4,500 hours of footage by Joe Walker (Hunger), it’s a very human journey brilliantly stitched together by a number of recurring stories and motifs that never fail to hold your attention. While films such as Powaqatsi have channelled the sheer size of the globe onto the big screen before, the Ridley Scott-produced Life In A Day is a far more relatable journey, reflecting the innate desire of the human animal to tell its story and connect with others, providing a visual echo of the mycelial web that increasingly connects us all via the internet and social networks. We spoke to McDonald about extrapolating light from darkness and the redemption that lies at the beating heart of the film.

Dazed Digital: Did you have an agenda when you started out on the project? Was there something you wanted to say about humanity?
Kevin McDonald:
I didn’t have any particular statement in mind when we started making it. I genuinely did go into it with an open-mind and I wanted to let the material speak to me. From the 4,500 hours shot I watched about 300/350 hours, which took six or eight weeks. I just got a feeling for what the material was trying to say then I tried to structure and give focus to the feeling it was trying to give me as it washed over me. I say I let the material speak to me but we are all biased. I’m sure twenty other people would have watched it and found twenty other things that the film said to them because of what their individual preoccupations were.

Dazed Digital: What came through the process most strongly?
Kevin McDonald:
I think what the film says is that all around the world we go through the same basic emotions and that the same watermarks are present in all of our lives. If you look at the real fundamentals – the births, children, love, illness, exhilaration, death; there are a few basic levels that we all share no matter where we are from, and that came across very strongly in the sense of life force. The dark side of life came through too – illness, fear trauma… people like those at the Berlin Love Parade going out to enjoy themselves, and this horrible tragedy befalling them. The human spirit seems to surpass that though, and in the film there’s a sense of redemption – a sense that once you face the dark side of life you can actually get on and enjoy it.

Dazed Digital: It does seem as though there is a deliberate political bent to the film at times, certainly cutting from the guy who pulls the key to his sportsscar from his pocket to the kid shining shoes for a living….
Kevin McDonald:
That was one of the few things that intentional in the questions we asked people. With most of the questions – what do you love, what do you fear and so on – we were trying to get inside people’s minds and inside their opinions. The question ‘what’s in your pocket?’ was different as we knew it would be a way to get inside the idea of inequality and materialism because you can’t make a film that’s trying to be representative of the whole world without noting the inequality between whining Californian teenagers and starving people in Haiti.

Dazed Digital: Did everyone send in hours of footage?
Kevin McDonald:
Well some people did and some of them didn’t. I think we were trying to play a bit of a trick on the audience, because obviously the challenge was to make it feel as though there was a narrative – so you want to keep going and it doesn’t just feel like piling clip on clip. The chronology helped with that but there also needed to be a desire to know what happens, so that if you meet somebody in the film and then you think ‘that story isn’t quite finished’, you will wait until the next time that person appears. Obviously, some of the people do reappear and you get a little more about them but some people never do. There were certain people, like the Japanese father and son at the beginning – which is a really beautiful piece of film – where the segment was pretty much all they filmed. I definitely wanted to know more about them but they didn’t tell us any more, and I suppose that’s part of it. In retrospect, I see the film as being a metaphor for the experience of the internet, and I think in some ways it’s the first film that is really about that experience of being connected.

Dazed Digital: Did you want to wake people up to the extraordinary moment – the phenomenology of even the seemingly mundane?
Kevin McDonald:
Well, the origins of the idea for me came from the mass observation movement in the 30s and 40s, which was a movement to find the extraordinary and surreal in everyday life. We all go through life accepting what we see around us – the mundane experience of day-to-day life – but actually, if we write them down or film them we can see how weird it actually is. If you look at other people outside your immediate environment, what you see as mundane seems weird or surreal to other people, and that was the impulse to make the film.

Dazed Digital: If someone sent you – it’s very dark – but if someone sent you a suicide tape or something like that, would you have included it?
Kevin McDonald:
I don’t know, I certainly probably would have wanted to, but whether or not everyone around me would have agreed, I don’t know. There would be various legal issues with something like that. It’s interesting that one of the various comments made about the film was that it’s artificially biased towards the good things in life; it’s too light. I actually don’t agree with that, and I don’t quite understand that because I was worried about it being too dark – you’ve got a cow being slaughtered, you’ve got a double mastectomy, someone who’s dieing of leukemia, people getting crushed to death… It feels like that darker side is present, and when night falls the physical darkness becomes a metaphor for everything we’re frightened of in life – destruction and illness and death. Then you have the redemption, which is the awareness of the man whose wife had cancer who says, ‘I’m not frightened of anything anymore.' The sense of redemption is very moving, and that moment is the key moment.