Photochemical film has serviced the film industry for more than 100 years. A medium that traditionally brought “together science, art and impact” – as according to the documentary Side by Side – has been pixelating for longer than most people outside of the industry would even know, just ask George Lucas. But mirroring the immediacy most filmmakers appear to credit digital cameras with, is the immediacy with which this technology is now overtaking and replacing film in what is overwhelmingly considered within the industry to be an inevitable transition. Side By Side, narrated by Keanu Reeves, is a documentary that asks a select group of filmmakers to talk about the formats, the process, their perceived pros and cons, all in an easily digestible way for people outside of the “movie business” with a view to proffering some insightful inside info.
There’s no denying that Side by Side is a well made and entertaining film. And though it has no responsibility to present to its audience in any way other than as it sees fit, for anyone interested in how the issue fares beyond production, the scope is disappointingly narrow. Although the film alludes to issues pertaining to cinema exhibition and preservation, their mention is a quick nod in consultation with the same people who speak about the processes of production. The second problematic flows on from there as it becomes clear the film is really only interested in the opinions of filmmakers. At no time is there an interview with a projectionist, with either multiplex or independent cinema operators, nor distributors, nor academics, and of course, absolutely no opinion at all from movie-going audiences. However, the film has no responsibility to give its audience diversity in opinion as it carves out its central argument – that’s its prerogative. But even if we let Keanu and Kenneally (director) off the hook, what is most problematic is that even as an exercise in examining filmmakers’ opinions, Side by Side interviews a very select group of mostly Hollywood, and almost all mainstream, blockbuster filmmakers; its most obscure interview surrounding the huge success of Thomas Vinterberg’s Dogme 95 low budget film, Festen (referred to here as The Celebration). Arguably a mainstream film itself in terms of its reach although surely not in its inception, Festen is surprisingly the very first film shot entirely on digital. But even here Keanu curiously interviews Vinterberg’s Dogme 95 celebrity colleague Lars von Trier, as well as DP Anthony Dod Mantle, instead of Vinterberg himself. Perhaps Vinterberg is considered too obscure for mainstream, western audiences likely to view this film? No consultation with avant-garde or experimental filmmakers, small arthouse filmmakers, or even a fair cross section of famous filmmakers from really anywhere outside of the studio machine is entered into.
It won’t come as a surprise to anyone that whilst not offering conclusive remarks through its narration, Side by Side consists mainly of pro-digital enthusiasts along with many who see the pros and cons but move along with industry mandate, a sole purist, Christopher Nolan, sticking out like a thumb tack as the only one who is not willing to trade in his “oil paints for crayons”, and whose DP is the only person in the entire film who seems to care about the difference in visual quality of the blacks. Danny Boyle says, “If you’re unable to deal with it, then your time is over.” But then again, he also think his own film, Slumdog Millionaire (also shot by Anthony Dod Mantle), is the film we will look back to well into the future as the mark of acceptance for digital filmmaking. It might have been a good idea for Keanu to interview at least one or two people whose delusions of grandeur and opinions of self weren’t quite so far removed from the actual future implications of the issue. Nevertheless, Side by Side is at least an accessible and entertaining starter for a conversation that needs to take place.
Written by Tara Judah for the Astor Theatre.