Every so often a documentary is made, which really captures the minds and hearts of its audience. In the last year, the genre, which has often been sidelined to television, has generated some of it’s biggest and most successful releases on the big screen including Searching For Sugarman, Marley, The Imposter, Hit So Hard and How to Survive a Plague but these films really would mean very little without an audience that the filmmakers know will come along and see it. This cycle of good documentaries isn’t over yet, in fact the ‘reconnaissance of fact’ (as I have hereby named it) seems to have only just started picking up steam and cinema vérité may yet again become one of the most watched genres in film.
Christopher Kenneally’s Side By Side is one of the most genuine, interesting and exciting documentaries I have ever watched; possibly because as a cinephile myself, I am massively interested in the subject matter of the film but also because it was one of the most highly structured and well made documentaries I have seen. Side By Side is looking at the history and process of both digital and photochemical film creation, in other words, how films we watch are physically made. It shows what artists and filmmakers have been able to accomplish with both film and digital and how their needs and innovations have helped push filmmaking in new directions.
It seems the days of Michael Moore making documentaries, which everyone can understand by him talking down on his audience are over and instead Kenneally has successfully created a film in which the masters of the trade are explaining to an audience who may not be fully aware of these processes, how they work, in terms which anyone can understand.
The argument regarding film versus digital is not a new one, and has been on the minds of filmmakers and critics for years already. Ever since George Lucas pulled digital out of bag big time during Star Wars Episode One, the argument that perhaps the digital process is more reliable and economical has been something fought over by those who feel digital is simply a seduction and that film will never die. Of course, Lucas himself is quoted saying, “Writing the script was much more enjoyable this time around because I wasn’t constrained by anything. You can’t write one of these movies without knowing how you’re going to accomplish it. With CG at my disposal, I knew I could do whatever I wanted”.
So there is one part of the argument; these films, which are so dearly loved today and (looking at Box Office figures) do so insanely well, have become part of the fabric of not only Hollywood cinema but cinema around the world. One only has to look at James Cameron as an example; from Titanic to Avatar, he has broken box office figures that have ranged from the beginning of cinema but honestly, how much of Avatar was anything other than digital images edited together? Now, don’t get the wrong idea about me – I am possibly a little agnostic about the whole situation and wouldn’t want to offer one over the other but Side By Side was able to show me some of the different opinions.
Moving away from a debate on the film matter, and back toward looking at the film, Side By Side has two hugely important things going for it; it is one of the best organised documentaries I have ever seen, moving through the film process with the people involved in every part. From the filmmaker, to the cinematographer, the editor to the (dying profession) projectionist, Side By Side, explains the process and lets the world’s leading professionals explain their points of view without being judgemental or shoving the audience into one opinion over the other. The other thing going for Side By Side is the lush list of names attached to the project, I mean, COME ON, on what other poster do you see such a variety of insanely talented people (and Movie 43 & New Year’s Eve are not good alternatives, so don’t offer them)? Moving through some of the biggest directors in the world, from Cameron to Fincher to Lynch and Scorsese (with a light smattering of Dogme 95, nice ol’Lars von Trier), the film even offers a light moment with the world’s current genius, Lena Dunham who talks about her feature, Tiny Furniture.
Side By Side nicely divvies up your time between the traditionalists like Scorsese who still yearns for the dallies, the cutting of film and constant attention to every minute detail that may pass his eye. But as the film explains, time delays have now been cut down. Where dallies would happen each morning after filming, filmmakers are now able to watch their footage back instantly and decide there and then if they need to do anther take. For filmmakers like Fincher, this is perfect because he can make decisions sooner rather than later. An interesting case study in this documentary is that of Anthony Dod Mantle, the DP who saw innovation in shooting digitally during the Dogme 95 movement. He worked on Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen and never thought he could win an Oscar because of this format but that changed in 2009 when Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire won.
For the geeks in the audience (of which, I most certainly am one), there were moments in this documentary when you felt the filmmakers, producers and editors were directly talking one on one with you; it felt heartfelt and personal and possibly because this documentary is about them, it’s about what they do and what they are. The emotional aspect of the film is something not to miss; in certain parts the interviewees actually become riled up in whatever they are talking about and this is because they care so much about the changes to the film industry today. There are moments in Side By Side, which honestly I will not forget in a hurry including (but not exclusively) a very brief moment (practically a snapshot) of standing behind the camera with David Lynch whilst filming Laura Dern in Inland Empire… I MEAN, WHAT IS THAT! THAT DOESN’T USUALLY HAPPEN… IT’S DAVID LYNCH!
Right… I have had my moment, and the geek out is over… I apologise, and can continue…
Throughout this entire review, I have missed one integral part, which is the narrating and interviewing by none other than Mr Keanu Reeves (yes, Neo). I was partly intrigued as to whether Reeves was going to be able to uphold the responsibility of this film and whether his facial expression was actually going to change; perhaps he isn’t like he is in the movies in reality and I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised at his calm and casual style, it was nice and easy to watch as he bantered with those he spoke to. The only thing, which niggled at me was his ever changing hair… in one shot he has long hair and then short and then long again… Side By Side was filmed over a year and a half, so that explains the change in hairstyle, it just made me laugh a bit.
… Most importantly Side By Side asked the questions that needed asking; the poster says it, ‘Can film survive our digital future?’ and the answer is… Well I don’t have one right now and nor did the filmmakers in the documentary, but we are so early in this digital age that we don’t need an answer, lets leave that for another 50 years or so. As long as we are willing to discuss and ready to come up with alternatives, then we will never lose the magic of cinema, whether that be on film or digitally.
Side By Side is one of the most interestingly bold, unique and fulfilling documentaries I have ever seen. It made me truly understand some of the biggest issues in cinema today and brought me closer to some of the most genius filmmakers currently working. I would certainly recommend to cinephiles and cinemagoers alike.