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Life In A Day - Kevin Macdonald interview

Kevin Macdonald

Interview by Rob Carnevale

KEVIN Macdonald talks about some of the challenges of making the documentary Life In A Day, a user-generated film chronicling people’s lives across the world on July 24, 2010.

He talks about ethical considerations, why there is as much darkness as light, and some of the moving reactions he has had to the project since completing it.

Q. Life In A Day is a fascinating film. Was the fact that it’s so different part of the appeal for you?
Kevin Macdonald: Yeah, I guess it was just very simply that: to do something different. It’s not often that you can say you’re doing a film where it’s not like anything else that’s been done before – in this case it genuinely is. The surprise to me was that what started as an experiment ended up being a film that is actually very populist in a way; it’s very accessible and easy to enjoy and it’s a good time at the movies, which kind of goes against what you would imagine.

Q. How hard did you have to work to ensure you didn’t come across as emotionally manipulative? It’s one of the things the cynics will immediately go to…
Kevin Macdonald: Well, I’m a fairly cynical person and so usually, not always, I’m one step ahead of the cynics [laughs]. I was just saying to somebody on the phone, some people have said to me that it’s too light and too much about the nice things in life… it’s kind of fluffy. But I look at it and I think the opposite. Yes, there’s a lot of nice things but actually the big themes of this are about people losing… boys losing their mothers, people being ill in hospital and wanting a few more days of life because they’re afraid of dying, or cows being killed, or people being crushed to death. There’s quite an emphasis in the film on the dark stuff.

But the positivity comes in the spirit… it came across from all of these people who remained so positive about life. Even the old man who is lying in hospital after his heart transplant… he’s saying: “I can’t wait to get back out there and enjoy life again.” And that, to me, is what comes across. It is very positive but it’s about coming to a positive state of mind after having confronted and seen that, yes, life is short and life can be brutal and unfair and over before you know it, but enjoy it while you can. Now, you could be dismissive and say that’s trite but actually I think it’s true.

Q. Well, every single person always hopes for the best…
Kevin Macdonald: Exactly and I think the theme of the film in a way is summed up by the guy at the end, whose wife has just had a cancer operation, who is going through a terrible child – his child is acting up – and she says: “What are you frightened of?” And he says: “I’m not frightened of anything. I was frightened that you’d get cancer again and you did. So now I’m not frightened of anything because I’ve faced up to my fears.” I think that’s the sort of position that we all hope to get to in a way.

Q. How difficult was deciding which footage to use and which to leave out?
Kevin Macdonald: Well, in one way it was surprisingly easy for me because I only watched about 300 to 350 hours. So, I looked at it with no real preconceptions. I just thought: “Let’s see what the material says to me and the editor Joe [Walker].” So, we just sat and let it wash over us. Every now and then there would be something that made us sit up… that would make me laugh or force us to go: “Isn’t that beautiful!” So, we’d take that and ended up with 10 or 15 hours of stuff that we thought gave us a response. The hard part was for all the assistants and researchers… there were 25 of them who spoke lots of different languages from all around the world, who watched 4,500 hours and spent 12 hours a day for two months ploughing through material, a lot of which is pretty hard to watch. I’m sure we’ve missed a lot of good stuff as a result of people maybe falling asleep when they were watching it or they didn’t recognise its value after weeks of watching so much material.

But I think there’s an amazing resource there because I wanted to give those 4,500 hours to a library and have it as a sort of time capsule about this day – July 24, 2010. I think it’s an amazing resource to come back to in a few years time to see what was going on at that moment.

Life in A Day

Q. Was there anything X-rated that you couldn’t use? Did you have a certificate in mind that you had to aim for?
Kevin Macdonald: [Laughs] One of the great things about making this film was that the financiers [including YouTube] gave us the money and they had zero say over editorial content, which is amazing. I’ve never had that. We could have made it X-rated if we’d wanted to. I don’t think they would have objected. But we had surprisingly little that was really unpleasant to look at. I mean, the thing that shocked me most was seeing this funny, hairy creature on the screen. I thought: “What’s that?” And as I leant forward for a closer look this huge s**t came out and I realised it was some man’s hairy asshole and he’d put a camera down the toilet. But I wasn’t going to make anyone in the cinema watch that [laughs]!

And there was a clip in Tunisia of a bunch of doctors standing around a guy who was lying on an operating table and one of them had an implement and puts it in the guy’s mouth and pulls out this wrench that long [gestures a huge length]. All the doctors are totally aghast and then literally fall about laughing because they can’t believe it. But in that case, we didn’t know whether the patient was still alive or whether he’d given consent. So, there were ethical considerations. We also had a bomb blast sent in from Pakistan that we did have in the cut, which involved severed heads and people with organs hanging out and trying to put them back into their own body. It was really grotesque but it turned out not to be filmed on the right day.

Anything particularly extraordinary we decided to do research on to find out whether that really happened on our day… some of the nicest things, in fact, were people trying to pull a fast one. There would be some nice bit of video they shot some two years before, but they’d send it in and we’d find out. We’d usually just go on YouTube and it was already up there!

Life in A Day

Q. How important as well was it to go into developing countries?
Kevin Macdonald: That was the important thing for me. When I got involved I said to YouTube that I didn’t want it just to become a YouTube project. It has to be a world project and YouTube isn’t everywhere and not everyone has access to cameras. So, they agreed to give us money to buy 400 cameras which we sent out into the developing world through various organisations. The people who filmed footage got to keep the camera and one memory card, so long as they sent us back the other memory card. But we only actually got 50 or 60% back.

I think the one big mistake we made in doing this was that we didn’t send a teacher or something with those cameras. We probably would have got better results if we’d sent 50 or 60 cameras and 25 teachers or film students who could have showed people some documentaries and the kind of thing we were looking for. I think if you’re a villager in the north of India you’ve never seen a documentary before and you’ve never been asked your opinion about anything before. All of us in the west have this sort of narcissistic idea that everything we say and do is fascinating and that our opinions are really important, but if you’re a peasant in China the idea that your opinions are of interest to anyone outside is amazing… especially in the context of some film project like this. So, I think we could have handled that a little bit better.

But we still got some beautiful stuff back from that – the people in Afghanistan, the fantastic shoe shine boy, some wonderful stuff from Angola and Kenya. The most surprising thing to me was actually how positive the material was, so why is that? Is that what most people outside the media actually think? Are they quite positive about life? Or is it a self selecting group of people who actually contribute… the same kind of people who contribute to Wikipedia out of generosity or a sense of community and responsibility? Is it the same kind of people who contribute to something like this, or is that really a representation of the world?

Q. What do you think you’ve taken away about the human experience? Is it that we’re all pretty much the same?
Kevin Macdonald: Well, I think fundamentally we all are the same. I know it sounds trite and it’s not what I set out to say or anything, but you look at it, you see the end result, and you say: “This film is about the fundamentals of human existence.” It’s about birth, death, illness, exhilaration, love, childhood… those are the things that basically everyone shares. When you ask people, ‘what do you most love in your life?’, basically 95% of people say to you in one form or another something to do with family. There’s a reason why that happens. It’s the same as asking people what they fear. Well, fundamentally we all fear death and that’s expressed in different forms.

Q. What’s the most gratifying response you’ve had to the film?
Kevin Macdonald: Well, I think the most gratifying response was when 20 of the filmmakers – there was a competition aspect of the process – who were invited to Sundance by YouTube as a prize came and they loved the film, which was great… in particular, the family who were so brave in the film about shooting themselves on the day when the mother had come home from cancer, having had a double vasectomy. They came and it proved to be a cathartic experience for them. They were lovely, lovely people. They said: “Last year was the worst year of our lives but this was the silver lining. This film and the prospect of coming here to Sundance gave us something to look forward to.” So, that was really nice.

And weirdly, I had an email just yesterday, which was very sad, saying that Randy Ray Sides, an eccentric ex-drug addict who filmed his friend who is a mass collector, had died two days ago. I don’t know how but his brother wrote to say: “Just thought you should know, Randy just died and wanted you to know that at the end of his life, the thing that he felt most proud of was the fact that he contributed to this film.” I thought that was quite something… that we gave a voice to someone who had never had a voice to say their little bit about what their life was like. That’s quite touching.

Read our review of Life In A Day