Sometimes a documentary will operate from a premise so irresistible that liking it is a foregone conclusion. Such is the case with Reel Paradise (2005), a film about an American family who moves to the Fijian island of Taveuni for a year to operate "the world's most remote movie theater."
Unseen director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) arrives in Fiji to document the family's final month on the island. John Pierson, the "Guru of Independent Film," had been programmer at the Film Forum and later as a producer's representative helped secure financing and distribution for some of the most important independent films of the late-1980s/early-'90s, including She's Gotta Have It (1986), The Thin Blue Line (1988), and Roger & Me (1989). Anxious to get out of the indie film rat race for a while, and inspired by a segment on Split Screen, a series about indie cinema that he co-hosted for several years, Pierson finances the purchase of the 180 Meridian Cinema, a run-down movie house built in 1953 that used to cater to expat Indians.
With wife Janet, teenage daughter Georgia, and her younger brother Wyatt in tow, John lives a one-of-a-kind adventure. While his attentions focus primarily on the theater, the rest of the family interacts with their newfound neighbors, mostly third world native Fijians who look upon these rich and eccentric American invaders and their strange ways with varying degrees of admiration, distrust, envy, and bewilderment.
What happens to the Piersons is not unexpected but fascinating nonetheless. Perhaps John had envisioned a South Seas Cinema Paradiso, anticipating the kind of idealized communal reaction to movie-going seen in that film. Instead, the Fijians prove a fickle bunch, walking out in droves when most anything serious or arty is shown, while packing 'em in for low-brown fare like Jackass and The Hot Chick. John doesn't necessarily view this as a bad thing, though the local Catholic missionaries aren't at all happy about the film selection, nor the fact that Pierson is offering all his movies free of charge thus, they say, undermining the Christian work ethic.
Though we see Pierson's audience responding to various movies, director James doesn't interview the Fijians about their reactions to them, focusing instead on the sometimes sweet, often strained relationships between the Piersons and their neighbors. John seems to gets his kicks watching the purity of the Fijians reactions to movies that are completely new experiences for them. Indeed, there's something electrifying watching them literally scream with laughter watching Some More of Samoa (1941), a politically incorrect Three Stooges two-reeler that had Pierson's audiences in stitches regardless.
Janet, meanwhile, acclimates herself exceedingly well, and within the community seems to be regarded much like any other mother in the neighborhood. She admits to initially being shocked by the Fijians' poverty, many living in corrugated tin shacks with no electricity and running water, but quickly adapts to this world where such living standards are the norm, and no one seems too upset that they don't own a PlayStation 2 or have a Hummer parked in their driveway.
Daughter Georgia and son Wyatt attend the local Catholic school, befriending classmates and pick up the language a bit. Georgia becomes close friends with Fijian Miriama, a girl her own age. Georgia's celebrity status as the island's "rich white chick" worries her parents; they're not only concerned about her possible promiscuity, but about her friend's reputation in the community once the Piersons have packed up and gone home.
Much of the film is concerned with a break-in at the Pierson's rented home, in which about $14,000 Fijian dollars worth of computers and the like are stolen. The local police and the Pierson's drunk and perhaps crazy Australian landlord are of no help at all, and this puts the Piersons in the awkward position of questioning various neighbors and friends about the crime and risk offending them.
Reel Paradise ultimately is a movie that's less about the movies and one that instead contrasts the impossibly gorgeous south seas island with the poverty of its residents (and the relative wealth of the visiting Americans), the in some ways naive ambitions of John's project with the harsh realities of making it happen, the strict and sometimes violent rearing of children the Fijian way vs. the overly permissive American approach.
Video & Audio
Reel Paradise was shot on digital video and presented in 16:9 format. The image is mostly very good throughout, and the 5.1 Surround and 2.0 stereo tracks are up to current standards. There are no subtitle options.
The DVD offers a host of supplements, beginning with an interesting Commentary with Steve James and Janet Pierson, who talk about events in greater detail, and explore the relationship between documentarian and subject.
Also included are 16 minutes worth of Deleted Scenes, an Alternate Ending, and Filmmaker Biographies of John, Janet, and Steve James.
Split Screen: "The Fiji Stooges" is the segment from that series that inspired Reel Paradise in the first place, while 180 Meridian Cinema: The Year in Pictures isn't a photo gallery but rather a list of all the free movies that played during the Pierson's year-long stay. Finally, a 4:3 letterboxed Trailer rounds out the extras.
Pierson is highly critical of the Catholic missionaries who came to these islands hundreds of years ago to "tame" these one-time cannibals to their own corrupt western world ways. He's clear that he isn't trying to set out to do the same at the 180 Meridian Cinema. But filmmaker Steve James seems to ask, isn't Pierson - for good and bad - merely doing the same in a secular but similar manner?
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.
Also, be sure to check out this DVDTalk exclusive interview with the Pierson's here.