Reel Paradise

on August 17, 2005 by Francesca Dinglasan
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The camera turns to the frontlines of movie magic -- namely exhibition -- in Steve James' engaging documentary "Reel Paradise," which follows the story of cinema operator John Pierson and his family during their final month of a yearlong sojourn in Taveuni, one of Fiji's most remote islands.

Pierson, whose career in the film biz began as an independent theatre owner with his wife Janet in New York, made his fortune by producing and representing some of the earliest movies by such now-established helmers as Spike Lee and Kevin Smith. Pierson also had a stint hosting an Independent Film Channel program dubbed "Split Screen" on cable TV, before deciding to embark on his Fijian adventure.

In an experiment to run the "most remote theatre in the world," Pierson returns to his exhibition roots by taking over Taveuni's 180 Meridian Cinema, where he screens movies to locals, free of charge, during his stay. And Pierson does his darnedest to make sure that his single-screener is filled to capacity every night. Challenges include securing product, fluky projectionists and protests from neighboring Catholic missionaries, who complain that the free screenings compete with mass services.

Throughout the documentary, the Piersons emerge as extremely likable and real, displaying a genuine desire to fit into and absorb the Fijian culture at the same time as they are undeniably urban, mobile and modern Americans. The Pierson children, teenaged Georgia and middle-schooler Wyatt, for example, revel in the large group of friends that are around at any given time -- a Fijian attitude towards children and togetherness that contrasts starkly to the Piersons kids' New York City experiences. However, Janet shares her concern that Georgia's more open attitudes towards boys, emulated by her best friend on the island Miriama, may prove lastingly detrimental to the local girl's reputation once the Piersons return to the States.

The films screened at the Meridian are also a source of consideration for Janet. The Piersons unveil a keen sensitivity to the possible impact of their introduction of Western mores and media into the small society. Worried that the local boys will imitate the stunts in "Jackass," Janet argues with Wyatt, a staunch defender of the film, that he's a kid, and while he thinks a film doesn't influence him, he might not notice its effect until later in life. Wyatt, whose precocity and witty observations on the relative merits of independent and mainstream movies are one of the documentary's highlights, retorts, "'Jackass' doesn't affect me now, but it will in 20 years?"

In addition to painting an engaging portrait of the Pierson clan, "Reel Paradise" quite simply captures the pure, unfiltered joy of the movies. By aiming his camera at the audiences inside the Piersons' cinema, resounding with peals of laughter or screams of terror, director Steve James showcases the true power of the big screen. Directed by Steve James. Produced by Steve James and Scott Mosier. A Wellspring release. Documentary. Rated R for language including sexual references, and brief crude humor. Running time: 114 min

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