Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

For those who ponder the activities of average people on the opposite side of the globe, those who drift off to sleep curious about dreams being dreamt a few time zones to the east, those who pause now and again to think, “somewhere, a baby is being born and elsewhere a life is ending,” there is now another film to quell your ceaseless searching.

“Life in a Day 2020” premiered at Sundance this year as a sequel of sorts to a film of the same name from 2011. The 2011 iteration was stitched together from 4,500 hours of submitted footage, all captured on July 24, 2010. 

This time, “Life in a Day 2020” was filmed (collectively) on July 25, 2020, producing 13,000 hours of footage which director Kevin Macdonald (“Whitney”) and editors Nse Asuquo (“The Confession”), Mdhamiri Á Nkemi (“Blue Story”) and Sam Rice-Edwards (“Whitney”) sifted through to produce a marvelous snapshot of humanity.

The contributors who provided this footage, which amounts to nearly 18 months of content from a single day, are a highly diverse group. There is the little boy who loves to read about science and play with his pet rat, Rex. Far away there is an unappreciated man who disinfects playground equipment. 

We meet a couple trying to conceive a child and a passionate train aficionado. Most touching is the boy who lives with his family in a house built from corrugated metal and hopes to become a singer, who, alongside his father, surprised his sister with a birthday celebration.

Roughly structured around the human life cycle, beginning with births and progressing into old age, the film takes tangential trips for the sake of thematic continuity. The things we do are captured and preserved, reminding us that certain activities are universal. Interspersed between quotidian comings and goings, we hear answers to questions posed by the filmmakers: Who do you love, and what would you change about your life? These prompts are opportunities for emotion, something “Life in a Day 2020” certainly does not lack. 

This film brought me to tears. Confronted by human suffering and grief on such an unfathomable scale — nearly 450,000 American lives are among the more than 2,000,000 lives lost globally to the COVID-19 pandemic — individual mourning is swallowed by the abyss. 

Images of mass graves and morgue-overflow trucks are impersonal; perhaps it is this detachment that allows some to wave away this senseless death as fantasy. In “Life in a Day,” contributors do not share statistics. The viewer receives these individual griefs, one by one, suddenly more aware of the immensity of pain contained in each drip into the pail of loss.

Of course, “Life in a Day 2020” does not limit its samples of suffering to contagion. On July 25, we take to the streets with demonstrators for racial justice. On July 25, we hear from the grieving and the lonely and the ill. On July 25, we witness abject poverty and hunger, the scourge of which yields to no pandemic.

Despite these everyday tragedies, the filmmakers’ goal was not to depress. In fact, Macdonald has constructed the most gut-wrenching of roller coasters, as scenes of carefree joy precede those of loss and sorrow, which are in turn followed by proclamations of love and hope. The film runs the gamut of human emotion, celebrating our highs and commiserating in our lows, such that, in Macdonald’s words from the Q&A, “I feel like I am all those characters.” 

Reflecting on the impact of the documentary, in a post-screening Q&A, Macdonald said that “being forced to be aware of what a tiny part we are of this huge tapestry of humanity can only improve us as human citizens of this planet.” 

If this film makes anything clear, it is how profoundly common our experiences are. For this reason, I regard “Life in a Day 2020” as the purest form of documentary filmmaking. It is little more than documentation, albeit masterfully woven into a provocative work of art, and yet it tells an encyclopedic story of humanity. 

If there is a lesson to be learned in “Life in a Day 2020” beyond the one shared by Macdonald, it is to remember how our collective human life went on despite the challenges of last year, and to look forward to a continued unfurling of humanity in the future. The film’s significance lies in how well it puts the individual into perspective, while preserving the propriety of individual emotion. 

So find some time to imagine the emergent wails of infants heard in Laos and the concurrent terminal breaths taken in Latvia, for the entire human lifespan is lived today and every day.

Daily Arts Writer Ross London can be reached at rhorg@umich.edu.