Life in a Day - Kevin Macdonald's new documentary of user generated content
Scottish filmmaker's public content documentary streams on YouTube
Scottish filmmaker Kevin Macdonald is embracing YouTube with a new public content documentary. He explains his excitement to novelist Richard T Kelly
Cultural history suggests a certain link between one day in 1917 when Marcel Duchamp autographed a urinal then exhibited it as Fountain, to another in 2004 when the Beastie Boys doled out camcorders to fans at a concert then constructed a film (Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That!) from that footage.
The connection is what we now call ‘user-generated content’: raw material provided by Joe Public, transformed by an editorial eye into a discrete work of art or document. ‘Reality’ TV and ‘citizen journalism’ (unpaid bloggers padding out newspapers) are dubious contributions to this same category.
On the more positive side of the spectrum, we have director Kevin Macdonald and his Life in a Day, an extraordinary feature film commissioned by YouTube for which Macdonald has composed what he calls ‘a collage’ from 4500 hours of footage specially shot, on camcorders or cell-phones, by 82,000 people in 192 different countries – each recording what they got up to on 24 July 2010.
Macdonald conceived the piece, part inspired by Mass-Observation’s seminal work of the 1930s, hoping to ‘find out what people are really doing and thinking’ on a global scale. A fortnight shy of its premiere he sounds content with the finished product. ‘I think it works as a movie experience’, he ventures. ‘You go through a gamut of emotions, it makes you feel part of something bigger.’
If you trusted anyone to pull this off it would be Macdonald – as dynamic and creatively ambitious a filmmaker as British cinema can boast. The Eagle, his big-canvas drama of Romans in Northumbria, hits multiplexes in March; by which time he’ll already be working on his next project, a documentary about Bob Marley. ‘I’m easily bored’, he says modestly.
Macdonald is also a historian of the documentary form, name-checking Esther Schub’s Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927) in describing Life in One Day as ‘just the cutting-edge version of old archive-based films that were made from found footage but have a point of view.’ Where he and his possé of global collaborators benefit is in pocketsize digital image-capture, and YouTube’s gift for making it instantly viewable.
Inevitably, some of Macdonald’s contributors were better camerapersons than others, but he soon saw past variable picture-quality to the raw power of the content. ‘When people film themselves, or are filmed by a loved one,’ he notes, ‘they react to the camera differently, there’s a unique intimacy. I feel proud of this film in a way I wouldn’t if I’d shot it – I’ve just been a conductor of the material, rather than a composer.’
There’s an argument that directors might one day be put out of a job by the ongoing rise of a restless audience wanting to produce for its own consumption. But Macdonald isn’t losing sleep: ‘In the 1970s Coppola said the future of cinema was some little girl with a camcorder who’d become the new Mozart. It hasn’t happened yet. But that’s reassuring to the professionals – we have a skill in creating order and narrative out of chaos, and it’s still needed.’
Similarly, while acknowledging the merits of citizen journalists, Macdonald is clear he doesn’t want them to replace seasoned hacks. ‘It’s why I made State of Play, man,’ he laughs. That 2009 feature is behind him; Bob Marley awaits. Meantime, with talents such as Macdonald’s at large, both cinema’s future and its past seem secure.
The Sundance premiere of Life in a Day will stream live on YouTube at 1am, Fri 28 Jan (6pm local time). Richard T Kelly’s new novel The Possessions of Doctor Forrest (Faber) is out on Thu 2 June.