Judge Jennifer Malkowski laments the unfortunate similarity between the words "real" and "reel" that has lured in so many lazy film title writers...and lazy film critics who need a blurb...
"This is what I'd been missing back when movies meant everything to people."
Reel Paradise is Steve James's documentary of the last month of indie film guru John Pierson's year-long adventure showing free movies at the 180 Meridian Cinema in Fiji, "the most remote theater in the world." Part ethnographic documentary, part reality-TV style family drama, the film skews a little too far toward the latter, to its detriment.
Facts of the Case
John Pierson transplanted his family from New York to the Fijian island of Taveuni for a year to show free movies and have "a kind of midlife crisis / mission where my family was also involved." With funding from friends such as Kevin Smith, Pierson took over the defunct 180 Meridian Cinema and paid the expenses of showing current American and Indian films without charging any admission to the mostly impoverished locals. Interestingly, this lifelong promoter of independent cinema mostly shows mainstream blockbuster fare like X-Men 2, Bringing Down the House, and The Hot Chick, with films like Bend it Like Beckham and Rabbit-Proof Fence mixed in here and there.
Apart from running the theater, the Piersons have their own joys and difficulties adjusting to island life. John gets into a battle with local Catholic missionaries who resent his screenings drawing away some of their nightly attendees. Janet builds friendships with many of the islanders, but finds herself suspecting some of them when their house is burglarized. Georgia, 16, has plenty of friends and admirers among the Fijians and enjoys the freedom of island life, perhaps a little too much. Wyatt, 13, also seems to be having a great time and particularly enjoys taking his Dad down a peg with his well-argued diatribes against independent films and some of his parents' moralizing attitudes.
As an example of recent ethnographic documentary, Reel Paradise is most interesting in its potential and where it wastes it. Those involved claim that they didn't want to make the film as "a vanity project," but the final product is clearly a story about the Piersons' experience of Fiji rather than the Fijians' experience of the Piersons or their free movies. John Pierson's project began when he first visited the 180 Meridian—while filming a segment for his show, Split Screen—and found himself incredibly moved by the Fijian responses to watching films, a rare and unaffordable activity on Taveuni. He loved how engaged and invested the Fijians seemed and the way they responded so vocally to slapstick comedy. He explains, "I don't want to get into 'the noble savage' or anything like that, but it's a pure response to some basic, dumb things." In that blow-off line—"I don't want to get into…"—lies both the potential and the problem of Reel Paradise. Because inspiring footage of the Fijians eagerly absorbing the movies Pierson shows can only remain interesting for about five minutes, director Steve James must find other stories with which to fill the rest of his nearly two hours of screen time. The phrase, "I don't want to get into" unfortunately is a fair summation of his ethnographic strategy.
Instead of "getting into" the lives of the Fijians in any significant way, James chooses to focus on the Piersons and their experience on the island, which is surprising, considering his adept work with American subcultures in Hoop Dreams and Stevie that must have been almost as foreign to him as Fiji. The more engaging part of that story involves the contrast between the adjustment of the parents and the kids to island life. Georgia and Wyatt dive right in, making lots of friends. Wyatt tries to downplay his American-ness to fit in with other kids, whereas Georgia initiates her friend Miriama into some more American ways of life. When the two start to get a bad reputation in the town for staying out all night and getting involved with lots of boys, Janet and John voice their concerns. Georgia argues, "What does it matter what people say about you? In America, it happens all the time, as well." Her parents point out that America is where Georgia will be returning soon, but Miriama can't afford to be so cavalier about what people say about her because she is staying. The kids careen through this new culture to, I think, mostly positive effect. They take risks, put themselves out there, and are unafraid to immerse themselves in a way that seems less comfortable to their parents. An undefinable feeling of PC guilt and overcautiousness pervades John's and Janet's scenes with the Fijians. To be fair, I think I probably would have been overcautious, too. John, in particular, is portrayed as uninterested in getting into the culture much beyond his movie screenings. At one point, Janet describes her anxiety about whether the family is getting a true Fijian experience, to which she says John responded, "The cinema is my village." These stories are somewhat interesting to watch, but are proportionally too long and come at the expense of absent Fijian stories that must have been going on just down the street from the Pierson estate. James sometimes even wanders completely away fr
om Fijian themes and steers Reel Paradise into the most worn-out reality TV themes, as when Janet tries to pick up Georgia from a local party and the rebellious daughter refuses to leave. A shouting match ensues that I could have experienced from any number of MTV reality series.
On the commentary track, James explains that some of the Fijians were not very interested in being on camera, which may account for some of their absence. However, I wonder if there are strategies James could have employed to tease those stories out if he had really wanted "to get into it." Other documentarians currently doing ethnographic work have succeeded where James mostly fails. British documentarian Kim Longinotto, for example, has made films all over the world and really digs deep into the situations she finds. Her commendable strategies include working closely with co-directors and translators who speak the language of and understand the culture in the country she is working in. James appears to be a fish-out-of-water in Fiji, not staying for long enough or finding the right collaborators to really access anything meaningful about the Fijians.
Considering the way this production was arranged—at the behest of Pierson, shooting for only a month, and seeming to lack adequate access points into the culture—I don't see how it could have turned into anything but the "vanity project" that James and the Piersons have been so vocal about wanting to avoid. Because it is not a particularly flattering portrait of John Pierson, we might more correctly dub it a "narcissism project." Maybe the lens of an American family is an honest one for this kind of story, but it is a lens that in the end obscures and overrides the people and places in its view. It's the difference between looking at a photo of a Fijian beach and looking at the same photo with the four Piersons looming large in the foreground, smiling and waving. Sticking them off to the side of the frame might have been a better strategy for James.
Wellspring's presentation of this disc is top notch. The picture is sharp and the lush greens and blues of Taveuni remain brilliant during the feature (especially compared to the washed-out theatrical trailer). My only technical gripe is with the audio. The levels are not very well balanced, with scenes of laughing and shouting in the theater blasting way too loud for the high volume level I had to use to understand any of the rather muddled dialogue. I understand that these sound mixes can be particularly difficult to get right in a documentary and that's why subtitles would really have helped. The extras, however, are quite impressive for an independent documentary release. Wellspring piles them on and does a good job on each, from illuminating deleted scenes, an alternate ending with new footage, the full Split Screen segment that inspired the year-long project, and a complete list of the films Pierson screened at the 180 Meridian Cinema. Even more interesting is the commentary track by Steve James and Janet Pierson. It's a great idea to put a director and savvy subject together for a commentary, and the execution here is great. Janet Pierson is very candid about what she likes and dislikes in the film and where she thinks it deviates from the truth of their experience. James is equally articulate in explaining his limitations, successes, and the particular truth that he arrived at from observing the Piersons. As he eloquently puts it, in all documentaries "there are a lot of little lies in the service of what the filmmaker hopes to be some greater truth."
One of Pierson's detractors, Catholic Missionary Father Ben McKenna, poses the question: "Is [the free movie] project primarily for the benefit of the people of Taveuni or for the benefit of John Pierson?" I think one could ask a similar question about who is benefiting from Reel Paradise. Unless John Pierson has his own fan club, it seems like this film will be most valued by the Piersons themselves as a lovely reminder of their adventure in Fiji. It is not really satisfying as a vicarious adventure or learning experience for audiences who are more interested in the Fijian culture than the Piersons' family culture.
Guilty of traveling around the world to tell a too-insulated story about an American family.
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