By Steve James
I'll never forget when John first called me about his adventure in Fiji after he'd returned from
shooting that Split Screen episode at the 180 Meridian Cinema. He seemed almost as animated
then as (I would later learn) he had been the night of the Three Stooges showing that spurred
his epiphany. John told me of his plans to return for an extended period of time. He said he
wanted to show the movies for free and that his family was going along. As he talked, each
revelation seemed more fantastic than the previous one.
Then John hit me up for a donation to the cause. He did so gently, because he knew I was living
(mostly) on a documentary filmmaker's income. He said he was asking filmmakers he had known or
been involved with over the years. Some had leaped in with support (Kevin Smith, South Park's
Matt Stone, the Haxan Films/Blair Witch team), some had been bewildered (Michael Moore's six
word email response had been, "Ugh, tell me this isn't happening.") and others had pleaded poverty.
I pleaded poverty. I wished I could have helped. I'd met John while completing Hoop Dreams in
1993. He didn't represent the film but he became an advisor who really beat the drum for it when
we went to Sundance.
After the phone call, the next time I heard from John was at Sundance 2003 when my film Stevie was
at the festival. I was checking my emails and got one from him wishing me luck with the film.
He then asked if I had any interest in directing a documentary on their experiences in Fiji.
Like many others, I had sporadically followed the family's exploits in Fiji via their website,
so I knew the broad strokes of the story. John told me in the email that Kevin Smith and partner
Scott Mosier would be the executive producers and they'd secured the money to fund the film. I
said to myself, "Let's see, a funded film where I get to go to Fiji and document a unique
family's experience abroad showing free movies on a remote island?" It took me about three
seconds to say yes.
Despite my ready enthusiasm, I had no interest in doing a vanity piece. Thank-fully, John and
Janet made it clear from the start that this would be my film, and they expected it to be as
candid and honest as I could make it. That's not an easy thing to commit to for any subject of
a documentary, let alone ones who are as media-savvy and self-aware as the Piersons.
But that is exactly what happened. Certainly one of the defining characteristics of Reel
Paradise is the honest - sometimes joyous sometimes painful - depiction of their lives in Fiji.
The film is neither a Pollyanna portrait of the Piersons nor, for that matter, of the Fijians.
The film shows that life is hard there in differing ways for both the family and locals.
Though we filmed for only the last month, it was a full one. In addition to the ten-movie marathon, there's the delinquent projectionist, the robbery, dengue fever, and those family conflicts. The film also presented me with an opportunity to get to know some of the Fijian people in the Piersons' lives. Then there were the audiences at the movies. Nowhere in the world have I seen such visceral and passionate responses to a movie. In Reel Paradise, we really tried to capture the experience inside that theater. Being there, I realized why John had been so affected by his first visit to the 180 Meridian Theater, and why he wanted so badly to come back.
Yet despite the richness of that month of shooting, it's true that no film can fully capture a subject's experience. My modus operandi on my previous films (including the recent miniseries on immigrants in America, The New Americans) is to shoot for years at a time. Indeed, for this film, I could have easily imagined myself shooting periodically over the entire year of their stay. But that wasn't possible because funding came later. And in fact, it wasn't desirable either for the Piersons. They needed to spend the bulk of their time in Fiji just living their lives, without the camera.
I like to think of my films as acts of discovery. I may start with a solid idea or expectation of where the story is headed. But every time, the story ends up taking me in a different direction. That's the powerful allure of documentary filmmaking: to let the subjects and the story dictate the direction of the film, not the other way around.
For example, going in I had greater expectations that the film would explore the meaning of free movies on the locals. But what I found was that impact and meaning are hard things to quantify or even articulate in a culture where English is a second language and many of those in attendance are either not formally educated or young students. (Which only made me turn the question back on America. Despite our media inundated culture, greater wealth and education, we still have no real idea how to quantify the impact of movies here at home. It remains a source of huge debate.)
What did emerge for me was a story about a family abroad and the how each member of that family coped with and was changed (or not changed) by their Fijian experience. The Pierson family became a kind of metaphor for the differing ways America is in the world. John is a larger than life figure: a man on a mission in the quintessential American sense. His mission is movies, sometimes in opposition to that of the church there. Janet is in many ways John's mirror opposite. If John is the American proselytizer, Janet is the American diplomat. Georgia may struggle with authority at home and school, yet she displayed absolute ease with Fijian culture and kids of all ages. And despite Wyatt's great ability to adapt to the local culture, he was still very much his father's son.
Reel Paradise was an extremely provocative, at times funny, and other times enlightening experience. It is my hope that we have made such a film.