Thursday, January 27, 2011

Life in a Day

In a few minutes the documentary "Life in a Day: The Story of a Single Day on Earth," directed by Ridley Scott and Kevin McDonald, will premiere on Youtube and at the Sundance Film Festival. It's a great idea, but not exactly original. In 1936, Chinese novelist Mao Dun (Shen Yanbing) initiated a call for contributions in major newspapers to a project called One Day in China; over 4,000 entries were received from people from all walks of life all over China, to use whatever form of writing they chose to convey their experiences, thoughts, and feelings on May 21, 1936. Mao Dun and his editorial board selected about 350 pieces from among these and published the book, along with illustrations, notices of film screenings and dramatic performances, to give a cross-section of life in China on that day. The collection was published in late 1936, and copies of it can be found in libraries around the world. There is an English translation of part of the book edited by Sherman Cochran entitled One Day in China: May 21, 1936. The project was reportedly inspired in turn by a Soviet Russian project, One Day in the World, which never came to fruition.

March 6 update: to these we must add the Simultania Project by Erin Cooney, in which the same minute for hundreds of different people worldwide is broadcast simultaneously and in sync. This also reminded me of Jim Jarmusch's 1991 film "One Night on Earth," which is a feature film that plays like a documentary, divided into 5 stories of taxicab rides on the same night in 5 different world cities.

In each case the gesture at dispassionate comprehensiveness belies the projection of the creator's world view, which varies greatly, from Mao Dun's depiction of the collapse of capitalism and imperialism and the rise of the working classes to Kevin McDonald's individual/universalism and rhapsody to harmony, peace and hope. Like practitioners of "found art," these filmmaker/editors adopt the images provided to them like the pieces of tile in a mosaic to ultimately cobble together their own version of the world. Ironically it is precisely because these projects reflect different visions and do not succeed in capturing a comprehensive and objective cross-section of historical reality that they each become interesting in their own right and fruitful to compare.