Let no one say the 21st century short-changed the future when it came to time capsules. Where ancient worlds left earthenware, we will bequeath a zillion pieces of user-generated content, scattered across TikTok, Twitter and the rest. As such, history students may come to be glad of the precis offered by Life in a Day 2020. A mass snapshot devised by YouTube and film-maker Kevin Macdonald, it is actually a sequel.
In 2010, the original Life in a Day invited people across the world to submit clips filmed on a nominated date. The call was repeated on July 25 last year. There were 324,000 responses. While the pace can suggest an attempt to find room for them all, the result is hyper-curated. As an emblem of the age, it is not a bad start — humanity as overseen by a subsidiary of Google.
The logic of capturing 2020 for posterity — “this dreadful year,” one participant says — is obvious. But the film wants our attention now too. So, given how much dreadfulness is still going on, a discreet editorial judgment has been made. There are of course images of PPE, mothballed public spaces, at least one moment of wretched loss. But Covid is notably edged to one side, the film keen to change the subject and accentuate the positive. Untold figures scatter seeds or graduate, trainspot or skydive, marry, remarry, propose (spoiler warning: “relationships have ups and downs”). Most of all, they have babies. Life Goes On 2020 might be the better title. For the critic, it presents a dilemma. Am I giving a star rating to the film or the species?
The absence of place names speaks to another editorial policy. We are all one world, goes the implication. Or not. As with the first Life in a Day, divisions flash past. A refugee struggles in flood waters; American voices hymn different Americas. But the YouTube brand can only seem to bear so much of some realities. The bulk of the film is knowingly wide-eyed in the manner of mobile phone advertising, a blur of children’s birthday parties and elderly ladies learning to ride bicycles. Then we cut to a man weeping as he describes a mob jeering at a potential suicide. The tonal balance is deeply awkward, Macdonald’s brief impossible: acknowledge the abyss but do it quickly, then get back to the skydiving.
Of course, viewers may end up seeing the film as part of another history altogether — that of YouTube itself. In 2010, “influencer” was still a noun at the largely theoretical end of the English language. Since then, the stuff of Like, Share and Subscribe has become a giant moneymaker for a few, a hopeful side hustle for untold more. Like Covid and political turmoil, this profound economic and cultural shift is no more than nodded at. We are left to decide for ourselves who onscreen might be a pro now that so many bedrooms act as broadcast studios.
But Macdonald gives the future at least one quietly subversive glimpse of a world where a pandemic could not unite nations, but the selfie stick did. This time, the contributor names their location. They come from northern Siberia, they say, their backdrop a deserted steppe and a pristine lake. The star of the clip wades in, his phone held above him: “What I fear most is that my life will pass unnoticed,” he says, up to his waist as if about to baptise himself. Then he presses Save and Upload.
On YouTube from February 6