Side by Side (★★★★ Empire review)

SidebySideSquarePLOT Keanu Reeves hosts this documentary about the science, art and impact of digital cinema, exploring the demise (and perhaps death) of photochemical film, and the pros and cons of its digital successor, with an array of directors, cinematographers and other filmmakers.

For just over a hundred years, from the 1880s to the mid-1990s, the photochemical process generally referred to as ‘film’ had been used almost exclusively to capture, develop, project and store moving images, regardless of whether they were monochrome or colour, 2D or 3D, had sound or were silent. Celluloid’s monopoly was first challenged when video cameras became readily available to potential filmmakers, leading to the Dogme 95 films (or, more accurately, videos) and the festival success of such videotaped features as Chuck & Buck, Tadpole and Personal Velocity. It was not until the last years of the 20th century, however, that digital technology began to present not only a challenge to the dominance of traditional film, but a threat to its very existence. It is at this apparent tipping point that this well-informed and highly informative documentary sets out to explore the pros and cons of each format, and asks if ‘digital’ really is a suitable successor to film.
SidebySidewideOne glance at Christopher Kenneally’s interview list will convince you that he takes his remit seriously: along with brand-name directors (Danny Boyle, James Cameron, David Fincher, george Lucas, David Lynch, Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, Lars Von Trier and the Wachowski siblings), Kenneally and Keanu Reeves, his on-screen avatar, sit down with cinematographers, technicians and executives from both sides of the debate. It’s refreshing that each is allowed to make its own case, especially given that, in these opinionated times, ‘documentary’ is often a synonym for ‘polemic’. But although, there are compelling, eloquent arguments on both sides, Side by Side refuses to hedge its bets. For while the title leads one to expect that the film will focus on a direct qualitative comparison, it actually refers to the current state of (more or less) peaceful co-existence between the two formats, suggesting that this detente cannot continue indefinitely. After all, as celluloid advocate Christopher Nolan puts it, “A transition starts with people offering a new choice, but it finishes with taking the old choice away.”
VERDICT Wherever you stand on the celluloid-versus-digital debate, Kenneally’s documentary, hosted by an endearingly affable Reeves, is well-researched, informative and absorbing, arguably marred only by the omnipresent underscore. Oh, and for the record: it was shot digitally. ★★★★

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