From #lifeinaday to #britaininaday

Posted on November 4, 2011 by

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I just re-watched the crowdsourced documentary, Life in A day, on BBC2 which captures a day in the life of people around the globe. The narrative has been structured around a 24 hour time frame and in a way, there are synergies with how we structured ‘Oxford Road’. For me, it was the most meaningful way to edit the film and show a journey along the road and to capture over time, the changing nature of the people who frequent it and their movement along it.

Capturing a ‘day in the life’ is a longstanding concept in documentary filmmaking. Its a universal form of storytelling that I think we learn at an early age. Time essentially forms the backbone of the narrative and keeps the story moving forward.

With Oxford Road, the street is like the ‘character’ of the film – and its personality shifts and changes from day to night and from weekday and weekend.

Several films spring to mind when I think about using time to structure the narrative of everyday life and capturing that on camera.

Koyaanisqatsi by Godfrey Reggio, was shot similar to how we shot and edited Oxford Road. Like Oxford Road, the tone is set by the juxtaposition of images and music. It specificially lacks dialogue and has a non-vocalised narrative, capturing in many moments the movement of cities, people, traffic and weather. Indeed there is movement in every scene. Its a symphony of life on earth in the late ‘70s.

The portrait film artist, Margaret Tait (A Portrait of Ga, above), capturing moments and people letting the subject breathe, expertly creating filmic poems that feel true to the subject. A modern example might be Zidane, which presents an intimate portrayal of a football player captured during the 90 minutes of his last game.

Project Nim – a documentary about the life of a chimpanzee who’s life was one long scientific experiment to discover whether chimps had the capacity to form grammatical sentences. The film used a biographical timeline of what happened to the chimp from the day he was born to the day he died.

In Airport (1934) the subject was Croydon Airport, which used to be London and the world’s busiest airport (who knew?!). In addition to seeing planes in flight and maps to indicate their routes, the film uses the day in the life format to go behind the scenes and capture the work of ‘different technical and service departments, from weather forecasting and part maintenance to customs’. Consequently the film is an archive record of Britain’s early air transport infrastructure.

Berlin: Symphony of a City (1927) portrays a ‘day in the life’ of Berlin from dusk til dawn, eloquently ‘bringing us into Berlin by train as the sun rises, and following the life of the city as it wakes, goes to work… moves from work to play, to sport and dancing and drinking deep into the night. It leaps swiftly from rich to poor, from man to machine and back again, from the grandeur of the city-scape to the sewers beneath, and always movement, movement in every way that can be found’ (From Allan James Thomas’ blog post about Berlin: Symphony of a city)
Dizga Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera (1929) who applied his theories of ‘capturing life unawares’ in response to his cameraman brother’s experience in practice, shooting on location. This rare interview with Kaufman in October (1979) sums up what we were hoping to achieve with Oxford Road.

‘you could say that all of my work consisted of learning to film life in such a way that it could impress and influence one emotionally without the mediation of the artist or actor. To simply film, photograph life, is to produce a chronicle’

And it follows that all of these films are an archive of their time. With Oxford Road in the North West Film Archive, hopefully future generations will look back and can reflect on life in 2011 along this particular stretch of road, in a similar way.

This brings me back to Kevin Macdonald’s Life in a Day which was inspired by Mass Observation, a social research organisation founded in 1937 which aimed to record everyday life in Britain through untrained volunteer observers ‘who either maintained diaries or replied to open-ended questionnaires’. Life in a Day is a feature film gleaned from many filmed moments uploaded to YouTube and then edited to a day in the life format. I first watched Life in a Day in the cinema then rewatched it on tv. I loved the film – that we could see all corners of the world and the differences and similarities across human societies – the rituals and mishaps we create around breakfast, lunch, marriage, birth and death. Its a lens on the human species.

Weirdly I’m currently working as assistant producer on a BBC Learning project, Britain in a Day which aims to capture a portrait of Britain generated by British citizens capturing aspects of their life on the 12th November 2011.

I have no plans for the 12th except having my video camera to hand and observing what unfolds.

To take part in this epic and intimate archive of British life, visit www.bbc.co.uk/britaininaday and get tweeting #britaininaday

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