Tawake Evans writes from Fiji:
"We have been watching the DVD of Reel Paradise of Taveuni. Steve and Luisa brought the
CD and it was enjoyed by most audience. People are so fond of watching it lately that
they would ask to watch the movie over and over."
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
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.