Indie film guru John Pierson goes native, sort of, in “Reel Paradise,” an engaging docu about his year-long stint showing free movies to the locals at what’s purportedly the world’s most remote cinema, the 180 Meridian in Taveuni, Fiji. Although it will most readily appeal to cinephiles, who will get off on the depiction of unjaded audiences responding directly to the magic of motion pictures, Steve James’ study of an American family living in an exotic location offers sufficient reality-based incident and ponderable cultural issues to attract curious audiences in very specialized theatrical release prior to home market dissemination.
A lanky, bespectacled film freak who, as a producer’s rep, jump-started the careers of Spike Lee, Kevin Smith, Michael Moore and Richard Linklater, among many others, penned the book “Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes” and appeared on his own IFC cable show “Split Screen” for four years, Pierson discovered the Meridian on a visit in 1999. After it shuttered in 2002, he contrived to purchase it, and convinced his wife Janet, 16-year-old daughter Georgia and 13-year-old son Wyatt to pull up roots outside New York City and spend a year in the South Pacific.
Although aspects of the docu conjure thoughts of everything from “The Last Picture Show” to “The Mosquito Coast,” at its heart lies the simple sentiment about the primal escapist value of movies so eloquently expressed in Preston Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels,” in which a know-it-all Hollywood director rediscovers the worth of entertainment when he watches rural convicts convulsed with laughter by a cartoon. All the movies Pierson shows, from “The Matrix” to “Devdas,” are born equal on this media-free little island, and all stand or fall on their own merits.
James arrived in summer, 2003, to document the final month of his friend’s sojourn on Taveuni, an agricultural island of about 10,000 inhabitants (both indigenous and mixed Indo-Fijian), no public electricity and a single, unpaved road. The Meridian, built in 1954, has 288 seats, paintings of Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny on the facade and a measure of ramshackle charm.
Perhaps predictably, knockabout physical comedy plays best to the all-ages audiences, with the outright hysteria provoked by “Jackass” perhaps being exceeded only by the unalloyed ecstasy produced by the Three Stooges short “Some More of Samoa,” a South Seas tale which not coincidentally spins on cannibalism, a common Fijian practice not all that long ago. (“Jackass” was subsequently banned in Fiji.)
Son Wyatt is a hip kid whose sense of rebellion assumes an aesthetic dimension. “I’d kill myself if I had his job,” he says of his father. “Independent films are boring.” At one point, he advises against showing “Apocalypse Now Redux,” pointing out, “How many people do you think stayed awake during ‘Gangs of New York?’ About five people!”
By and large, the Meridian evenings seem to rep a positive distraction, release valve and focal point for the community. Still, there are moments — as after a screening of “8 Mile” when the kids react by imitating Eminem and “giving the finger a lot more,” per Georgia — that one wonders about the huge impressions movies can make on young viewers almost completely isolated from the surfeit of cultural stimuli absorbed daily by people in the more developed world.
For whatever reasons, pic refrains from delving into this thorny issue, but it remains relevant when it’s revealed Pierson’s principal adversaries on the island are Catholic priests (from the very school Georgia and Wyatt attend) who have taken seriously Pierson’s flippant comments that “Curly is god” and that he, Pierson, intends to “compete for (the) souls” of the locals by offering his free screenings just down the road from the mission.
Although the Piersons’ island home is a modest abode, it seems palatial by local standards, and when it’s robbed one night — the second break-in during their stay — unpleasant suspicions are raised regarding several locals they know well. Other touchy matters include Georgia’s apparent involvement with a dubious local boy; the evident parental abuse sustained by Georgia’s best girlfriend, and Pierson’s impatience with the imprecision of “Fiji time” as well as incompetent projectionists. Through it all, wife Janet does her best to iron out the misunderstandings and crises.
The rifts are papered over at a ritual farewell ceremony and by Pierson’s last picture show, a well-received screening of Buster Keaton’s “Steamboat Bill Jr.” Unconsciously evoking the long-standing religious dispute, Pierson stands by the door at the end, receiving his congregants like a minister after a Sunday sermon. Since his departure more than a year-and-a-half ago, the Meridian has remained closed.
Tech aspects are modest, but pic is lively to watch due to setting, large “cast” and frequent clips.