First screened at the Berlin Film festival in 2012, Side By Side at first glance seems an odd project: Keanu Reeves travels around the world in various states of beardedness, asking everyone from king-of-the-world A-list directors to virtually unknown colour-graders for their thoughts on the current drift into digital film. Some of the directors are not so much drifting as they are dashing (Steven Soderbergh) and some are actively resisting (Christopher Nolan). All make their case with passion, and the biggest surprise is that you’ll find yourself pulled in different directions throughout – there are excellent points made by people whose opinions are completely opposed.
It's also fascinating to get a glimpse of the personality of the directors involved. Joel Schumacher, of all people, displays a real understanding of human nature when he points out that although digital filming is lauded for offering performers the chance to re-watch scenes instantly and reference the notes that their director is giving them, many of them are probably distracted by the ability to worry even more than before about how their hair is looking.
Every time you find yourself siding with a plea in favour of the naturalism of film that ridicules shooting in a mo-cap suit in front of a green screen, you’ll find yourself brought up short by someone like James Cameron pointing out that this romantic ideal never existed: you were always on a soundstage during the daytime in California pretending to be outside in New York at night, with a man up a ladder checking the lighting with his bum hanging out. Cameron puts this particular point to Reeves in a forthright way: “Keanu, I’m going to assume you’ve been on a film set before...” and as you watch this and other exchanges, the reason behind employing a moviestar as question master becomes clear – it keeps a parity between the interviewer and director; Reeves isn’t cowed by the power of the people he’s talking to, nor are they ever able to be tetchy about being put on the spot by a random journalist they don’t know from Adam.
In a nutshell: Essential viewing for understanding different sides of one of the most vital current debates in cinema, this doc shows why celluloid versus digital isn’t a nerdy side-issue of interest to technical types only, but cuts to the heart of everything from performances to writing to whether a film can be made at all and by whom.
By Catherine Bray