Photograph courtesy of One Day on Earth

It seemed an impossible idea: collect film footage from every country in the world filmed on the same day in history—Oct. 10, 2010—and edit it into a coherent piece. But Kyle Ruddick, the creator of the idea and director of the resulting feature film, “One Day on Earth,” knew it could be done.

“We kept hearing from people, ‘No no, you can’t do it, it’s too hard,” Ruddick said by phone from his office. In many ways, these skeptics were not wrong. The problems were logistical (it’s not easy to get good-quality video out of, say, southern DRC) and artistic (you don’t know whether the results will be enough to build a feature-length film). But with the help of long-time friend and executive producer, Brandon Littman, Ruddick was eventually pitching to the United Nations.

“The only way you will film in every country in the world is to work with a major partner who has infrastructure in these places,” says Littman. The UN decided to support the effort and the UN Development Programme took the lead in helping the One Day on Earth team distribute cameras and collect footage from remote reaches of the planet. Ruddick and Littman also built a social networking platform with infrastructure from Ning, so that filmmakers—both professional and amateur—could sign up to participate, and find other people in their area or with common interests.

Nineteen thousand participants ultimately contributed 3,000 hours of footage to the project. The resulting film is organized along a trajectory of major life themes: birth and death, music, love, nature, work, creativity, war, the passage of time, religion. A few stories re-appear throughout the film: Vincent, a 10-year old with a genetic disorder that gave him a life expectancy of a decade, celebrates his birthday on 10.10.10; Nina, a French five-year-old, takes the tram to visit her mother; an Ethiopian teenager rebels against her parents, who want her to leave school and get married.  

The films repeatedly layer similar visual images in sequence: Mount Everest juxtaposed with the Swiss alps; a beach in the Dutch Antilles with one on Easter Island; chabolas in Venezuela and favelas in Brazil, sunsets and sunrises, churches, street side memorials, cemeteries, women giving birth, couples marrying, children swinging in a park in Pakistan transforming into kids swinging in a US playground. The streets of Macau look like New York City’s Chinatown. The idea is to diminish difference and show the ways in which people everywhere are the same. Ruddick says, “The consciousness of people and how they are connected matters. Your day-to day-choices matter.”

Finding nothing to like in this film would require exceptional dedication to cynicism.  There is a great deal that is simply beautiful, a few moments of excitement, and some real emotional depth. I caught my breath when a street gymnast, performing in the crosswalk as the cars idled on red, came out of a back flip to miss colliding with a yellow cab by inches. A four-year-old paints on her mother’s pregnant belly in a film dedication to Manuelita, the unborn child. There was genuine celebration when two elderly women who’d met, fell in love, and parted as young women exchanged their marriage vows.

But my favorite scene came from North Korea. The camera shows a Korean man standing in Pyonyang’s main square. He asks in British-accented English for the person behind the camera to come stand next to him. A petite woman emerges and he tentatively leans in to kiss her, but she, hardly moving, shakes her head. “Please don’t kiss me in front of the camera,” she says, her accent clipped.

“Why not?”

“It’s not a PDA kind of place.”

He glances over his shoulder and quietly kisses his own finger before gently placing it on her lips. He hesitates then leans toward her and whispers. “You are the love of my life.”

She responds, “It is a pleasure being married to you,” with no change of inflection.

It is a lovely moment, its understatement perfectly modulated for the world’s most pompous public square, shown again, in a separate scene, during a North Korean military parade.

“One Day on Earth” is full of these soft gems. But I cannot help but feel that such repetition accumulates and then dilutes these moments, so that the aggregate is less authentic than the individual. For all its crowd-sourced credibility, “One Day on Earth” is ultimately a Film (capital F) with much cleaner with neater closures than the lives it professes to capture. The poor and marginalized are represented in the minority and only through the well-intentioned efforts of aid workers or filmmakers to give them a voice. This is not for lack of trying. (Ruddick and Littman have shipped over 1,000 cameras around the world to help people in remote and marginal places contribute.) But the end result is somewhat anthropological—an observed reality, not an experienced one.

Thankfully, the “One Day on Earth” project does not begin and end with the film. The social platform that Ruddick and Littman built to allow participants to connect is open and accessible to anyone. And the One Day on Earth nonprofit that Ruddick and Littman founded continues to connect filmmakers to NGOs working in remote places to help them uncover personal perspectives. An extensive archive of the participants’ original submissions also offer a less mediated view into what they saw on that day. “We built this online community with the idea that it would be the hub,” says Littman. “That has staying power.”

“One Day on Earth” will be premiering this Earth Day, April 22, 2012, at the UN General Assembly in New York City. Visit www.onedayonearth.org for screening locations near you.

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