Reel Paradise - Synopsis

Reel Paradise tells the story of John Pierson's family at the end of a year-long adventure on a remote island in Fiji where they ran the 180 Meridian Cinema, showing free movies to the locals.

John Pierson is a noted indie film maven, author of the widely celebrated book, Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes, who together with his wife Janet created the IFC cable show Split Screen. On one story for the show, John and family went to Fiji in search of the "world's most remote movie theater."

John fell in love with the 180 Meridian Cinema when he saw the wild enthusiasm of the audience to a showing of the Three Stooges' Some More of Samoa - a short they had been showing at the theater since it opened in 1954. "I'd never remotely heard anything like that," John says in Reel Paradise. "This is somehow what I missed back when movies meant everything to people."

John decided he wanted to move with his family to Fiji and observe what movies meant to this country on the other side of the world. He also saw this adventure as an opportunity to plunge his two kids, Georgia (16) and Wyatt (13), into a culture and lifestyle far different from that of their home outside New York City.

Filmed during the last month of the family's yearlong stay in Fiji, Reel Paradise aims to reveal something of what the whole year has been like for the Piersons. The rural island of Taveuni is not one of Fiji's prime tourist destinations. Like most of the south Pacific islands, its people struggle to eke out a subsistence living as farmers, fisherman, and merchants. To the local Fijians, the Piersons are thought to be millionaires, because they are able to live in a large colonial home and show movies for free. (The home is indeed impressive by Fijian standards, though barely acceptable by middle-class western standards.)

Georgia and Wyatt are enrolled in the local Catholic high school, where they are the only white students. They gamely throw themselves into this very different school environment where some view them as curiosities, and others as suspicious outsiders. The kids form friendships with some classmates, many of whom live in the nearby village of Natokalau but come to treat the Pierson house as a second home. Janet follows their lead, befriending some of the families in the village.

John's village, says Janet, is the movie theater. John carries on the theater's tradition of showing a wide range of American, British and Hindi films. (The Fijian population is split between native Fijian islanders and Indo-Fijians whose ancestors immigrated here as indentured servants starting in the 1880s.) The profound difference now is John's ability to show the movies for free due to contributions from indie filmmakers he had helped in the past. For many in Taveuni, going to movies had been impossibly expensive before the Piersons arrived. Now, the 180 Meridian Cinema becomes the focal point of entertainment on the island with frequent packed houses. John is able to secure many of the most current popular and blockbuster releases from America and abroad, everything from Rabbit Proof Fence and Bend it Like Beckham, to The Scorpion King and The Hot Chick. For their last month in Fiji, John programs a special ten-day movie marathon featuring films like Matrix Reloaded, Bringing Down the House, Apocalypse Now Redux, and Jackass.

Because the Piersons are neither tourists nor permanent residents of Taveuni, their year here proves to be a complicated experience. They form strong friendships with locals like their cook Sia, and come to understand how third world islanders cope with day-to-day life. But they also experience culture clash and learn firsthand the realities of being "haves" in a culture of "have-nots." Early in the film their home is robbed while they are out showing a movie. It's the second such serious robbery since they've been in Fiji, and raises anew questions about whom they can trust or not trust. Their paranoia extends to their landlord Andrew, an Australian ex-patriot who lives on the property and has been a yearlong thorn in the side of the Pierson family. When Andrew insensitively presents the Pierson's with a fuel bill the night of the second robbery, its strikes another blow against the notion that living here can be some kind of paradise.

As Reel Paradise unfolds, we see the differing ways in which each of the Piersons deals with living in this very different culture. Showing movies for free makes John instantly famous as "Uncle John" to the locals - especially those that could never afford to go to the movies otherwise. Yet, the free movies also bring John into direct conflict with some of the local Catholic priests, a battle he humorously characterizes as being for the "souls of the people of Taveuni." Wyatt becomes a star pupil at school, praised repeatedly by teachers and administrators. Because the curriculum is not challenging for her, Georgia struggles with some of her teachers while forming a deep friendship with a local classmate named Miriama. School may be a bust for her, but she clearly loves Fijian life.

The Piersons grant the filmmakers unusually intimate access to the family's home life. The result is a frank portrait of a very American family abroad. We see the struggles between Georgia and her parents around typical issues for American 16 year-olds, now exacerbated by living in a culture in which children are never expected to talk back to parents. Yet, Georgia's friend Miriama prefers to stay with the Piersons instead of her own family where the father has been violent towards her and her mother. We also see that though Wyatt may be the quiet obedient student at school, he can be a tough and ruthlessly funny critic of his father and mother at home. Through it all, we see Janet playing the role of peacekeeper, the voice of reason during a particularly tumultuous last month abroad.

By the end of the film, we see how the Piersons have both been changed and unchanged by their experience. As unusually candid subjects, the family does not sugarcoat their feelings towards each other or their experience in Fiji. But underneath it all, there is no mistaking their affection for both. The last movie in the ten-day marathon (and last scene in the film) captures the essence of what John went searching for in Fiji. He shows Buster Keaton's classic, Steamboat Bill Jr., in part because he thought its climatic hurricane sequence would connect with the Fijians who had suffered through a devastating hurricane months earlier. The audience's howls of laughter betray the sweet release that great comedy can bring to hard lives. John says, "You almost feel like it's a cure for all that ails you. It was like nothing else matters anymore. All will be right with the world."