In 2010, Kevin Macdonald – the Scottish director of Touching the Void (2003), The Last King of Scotland (2007) and many more – created a feature-length documentary from YouTube videos submitted by 80,000 people across the world. All were filmed on a single day – 24 July. 

Almost a decade later, in March 2020, producer Jack Arbuthnott called Macdonald about creating a follow-up and said, “If we don’t do it now, we’ll never do it.” Macdonald says: “That was the very early days of COVID, nobody was too worried about it. We thought, ‘Oh, it’ll all be over by 25 July when we’re going to shoot this, so it’s not all going to be about COVID.’ Little did we know.”

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For Life in a Day 2020, which was executive produced by Ridley Scott, Macdonald and his team received almost 15,000 hours of material from 350,000 clips. They found that just 30% of the material they saw was shot in America, down from 55% last time, hinting at the way mobile tech advances have taken hold globally in the last 10 years.

The resulting film gives a fascinating insight into what the world was up to in 2020. Unsurprisingly, it features plenty of COVID despair, protest, death and unhappiness, but the film proves unexpectedly uplifting too, thanks to scenes of people dancing, laughing and having fun.

Macdonald spoke to us on a Zoom call from his home in Kentish Town, north London, and explained how the film was made.

Kevin Macdonald
© Fernando Cavalcanti

How did you put together the film this time round?

I had 3 editors and a team of about 50 reviewers around the world who spoke many different languages. They review the material, enter information into a database, and then give it a star rating, which was the key thing. I was able to watch the best material – 400 hours or something like that.

It takes a couple of months for people to go through all of that, then the editors and I spent a couple of months viewing it, then about 9 or 10 weeks actually editing it.

That’s the technicality of how we make it, but the artistry of it is, how do you stick these different clips together so it feels like there’s some flow, thematic development and consistency?

What did you want to achieve?

Connections or contrasts are what you’re always looking for. When you’re watching the material, you think, “What is it trying to tell me? What is this saying about 2020? What are the themes that the material is speaking to?”

COVID is one. Romance and love were another. We found that there were shots of people doing interesting things on rooftops during COVID, because a lot of people live in apartment blocks around the world. They’d spend their time having a drink, playing cricket, doing exercise, hanging out with their friends or falling in love with a girl on the neighbouring rooftop. 

There’s one scene where a young Italian couple are preparing to lose their virginity. Did you get sent much sexually explicit material?

That’s a beautiful moment. This girl has just turned 18, she’s out with her boyfriend and they’re going to have sex for the first time and they’re very excited about it and it’s rather lovely. We called that the Call Me by Your Name clip, because it’s got that feel to it.

But actual explicit sex? I do wonder why we don’t get more pornography or more explicit material. I don’t know whether it’s because all of our material has to go through the computers of YouTube – although [YouTube] say they’re not censoring anything. I have had the displeasure of seeing somebody defecate into the camera, for instance. [Maybe] it’s just that that’s not what people who film that sort of thing are into and it doesn’t turn them on.

Life in a Day 2020 (2021)

Did you have much violent content submitted or is that subject to the same rules?

We had quite a lot of violent content, and there is a little bit of that in there. There’s some bits and pieces that are quite aggressive and unpleasant. We had a whole sequence that was rioting.

There is one sequence of Black Lives Matter protest that develops into some violence. But there was, later on in the film, at night, a whole sequence which was protests that got really, really aggressive and lots of people, police, water cannons, fire bombs and all sorts of stuff. But we decided that we’d done protests already and we didn’t want to [include it] – it felt like the wrong energy.

[With] the first film I remember there was a critic who said, “This isn’t all of human life, because there’s no sex and there’s no death.” I think in this, there is a lot of death present. There’s a lot of contemplation on mortality. And I think that comes from the year that we’re living through and the state of mind a lot of people are in.

How much of the footage was pandemic-related? 

I would say that COVID is a shadow over maybe 15 or 20% of the film and it’s directly addressed in another 5%. So it doesn’t overwhelm, but it’s definitely there. And there’s a lot of masks, even in things where it’s not really directly about COVID

I found myself selecting things that were done in the countryside more than maybe I would have otherwise, because it was a blessed relief to be in the countryside rather than stuck in people’s flats. And that’s where I wanted to be.

If you were to look back in 20 years’ time and watch this film, you’d be in no doubt that you’re in the midst of a kind of pandemic. The big theme of this film is human connection and the similarity of human beings around the world, and how we’re all basically concerned with love and fear, the same simple things in life. COVID just accentuates that. We’re all affected by it. There’s something appropriate about doing this film at a time when there’s this pandemic that affects everybody. 

Life in a Day 2020 (2021)

Donald Trump is obviously one of the key figures of the last few years, and this last year in particular. He’s referenced in the film positively and negatively, so the film feels reasonably apolitical.

I tried to make it apolitical because who cares about my politics? We’re all fed up to the back teeth of talking about politics. The whole point of this project for me is about shared humanity, so, yes, I’m interested in the phenomenon of Trump, pro-Trump protestors and anti-Trump protestors. You can come at everything from a very personal point of view and from an emotional point of view, without trying to point fingers. 

I’m fascinated by the very pro-Trump war veteran, who, the first time you meet him, he’s saying, “Look how peaceful and lovely it is here. Nobody’s wearing any masks and [there’s] no protest here. This is what we fought for, for our peace and quiet.” I think a left-leaning viewer is going, “Oh, for God’s sake.” But when he starts talking about the photos on his wall, you see his buddies who have died, and he talks about somebody who has got PTSD and the suicide rate among war vets. You can’t help feeling for him. That’s humanising – I think it’s what we all need a bit more of.

What did you learn from putting the film together?

I did learn that technology has been a great boon this year – because you’ve got the COVID section of the film, which develops into a sequence of people on Zoom calls, so you realise, “Oh, technology has helped us retain our connection with people.” 

There’s an amazing sequence of a guy who we meet earlier in the film – he’s very depressed because he’s lost his job and lost his house, and he’s living in his car. We’d all be depressed, obviously. Then you see him later on and he says, “I’m going to show you what I love.” He opens the back of his car and he’s got all these drones in the back. He’s got a camera on the drone and he starts flying it. He’s lost among the clouds and the trees. Technology can be an amazing escape from life when it’s harsh.

Life in a Day 2020 will be released on Youtube on 6 February 2021