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Sunday, July 21, 2002

Isle of Forgotten Fans

In Fiji, a decaying theater with patrons from 8 months to 80 rekindles an indie maven's love of film


I recently became the proud owner of the world's most remote movie theater. A year from now, you could be wearing a T-shirt that says, "I saw it at the 180 Meridian Cinema." At least that's how I see it.

My wife and kids, whom I dearly love, have a slightly different take. They sing along gleefully to our new family theme song, "My Dad's Gone Crazy," thoughtfully provided by Eminem and his beloved daughter, Hailie, on the rapper's latest CD.

But gamely, they're leaving the very wired environs of New York later this week to join me in the bush and show movies at the edge of the world. Will our life be Swiss Family Robinson, without the treehouse, or "The Mosquito Coast, Part 2"? Tune in next year for the answer. Think "Osbournes Go Native," the difference being that if we launch a ham into the neighbor's yard, they will happily eat it.

The 180 Meridian Cinema is 5,000 nautical miles from the Santa Monica pier, mid-South Pacific, on one of Fiji's 323 islands. Theaters aren't normally built where dense rain forest meets pristine coral coast, especially on a volcanic island with no electricity, limited transportation on one unpaved road, and only a dozen small villages. In this primitive tropical paradise, waterfalls might outnumber people.

So much for demographics. On Taveuni, once a British colony, the villagers learn English in school, but they don't know from demographics. There's a full house, 288 sweaty bodies ranging in age from 8 months to 80, in every last 1954-vintage seat every night.

That's because, aside from church, the 180 Meridian Cinema is the only entertainment game in town. And with a little help from filmmakers like Kevin Smith and the "Blair Witch" gang whom I've helped along the way, the price of admission is the same as the nearby Catholic mission. The movies are always free.

We'll compete for those souls. Step right up. Walk right in under the iconic images of a welcoming Mickey and Bugs, painted above the front entrance years ago to greet would-be cineastes (Disney and Warner Bros., feel free to sue). Thanks to a diesel generator, see whatever film has been disgorged by the rust-bucket ferry this week. It could be "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" or "Ghost Dog, the Way of the Samurai," "The Fast and the Furious" or "Memento." Here at the end of the global distribution food chain, all films are created equal.

There are no media. TV or radio ads would be useless on an island where TV and radio broadcasts are virtually unavailable. You couldn't buy a magazine if your life depended on it. It's all word of mouth or, in the local lingo, coconut wireless.

Event pictures like "Pearl Harbor" and "Spider-Man" arrive mercifully hype-free, to be judged solely on their own merits. Even the mighty "Star Wars" has no imperial advantage here. In fact, Taveuni may be the only safe haven on the globe where the Force is a dud.

Science fiction doesn't fit in the villagers' hardscrabble reality. "They know it's baloney," according to the former theater owner. On the other hand, no one liked "Cast Away" because it played like a (very long) documentary.

Preferences emerge over time. 007, in all actor incarnations, is a favorite. Jet Li and George Clooney (especially in "The Peacemaker") are coming on strong. But no one can hold a candle to the Third World's biggest action hero, Jean-Claude Van Damme. Ask any Taveuni man, woman or child. If the Muscles From Brussels ever visited the island, he'd go from straight-to-video to straight-to-the-throne, crowned as King of the Fijians. (Consider this an invitation.)

But only Curly is God. We discovered the local worship of the Three Stooges quite by accident on our first trip to the island two years ago. This tale really begins at the close of 1999. Being the guy Variety had long described as "the guru of independent film" wasn't fun anymore. I'd lost that sustaining sense of delight in the movies.

So combining midlife crisis with grand adventure, and seasoning with a pinch of disgust over Y2K hysteria, we started searching for a millennial destination with a movie tie-in. That way, the whole boondoggle could be charged off to "Split Screen," my cable TV show (now in repeats on IFC). Spurning Tonga and Kiribati, we targeted Fiji.

Somewhere out on the international dateline, we meant to show the first movie of the new millennium. Instead, after a two-month delay, we stumbled upon the world's most remote cinema. The 18-seat Chinese surplus prop plane that takes you to Taveuni's jungle airstrip is a time machine. It takes you to the future and past all at once: the future because it's always tomorrow on the magical dateline, and the past because it's always 1954, the year the 180 Meridian Cinema opened.

The agricultural economy (copra and kava) was better then. An average weekly wage now is $20. Yet even the poorest ramshackle, tin-hut dwelling villager knows the cinema is a bit of a dump, moldy and unchanged in all that time. It exists because one man, Ambraham Dayaram, a proud Indian who is the Fitzcarraldo of Fiji, had a vision that juxtaposed two concepts: Let's build a memorial hall to honor Mahatma Gandhi, and let's show movies in the middle of the jungle. He's still kicking at 86, and if you ask him, like I did more than once, "Why'd you do it?," he'll give you a three-word answer: "Movies are good."

Just like Joel McCrea's director in "Sullivan's Travels," I had forgotten how good movies are. I was vividly reminded when Ambraham's son Dhansukh, who had run the joint for years, pulled out a Three Stooges short. Since its opening, through three generations of filmgoers, the 180 Meridian Cinema has regularly, nearly ritualistically, screened three Three Stooges two-reelers that were never returned to the film distributor. All three are venerated.

But "Some More of Samoa," their one and only South Pacific escapade in which Curly goes jaw to jaw with a crocodile, got the most ecstatic reaction I have ever witnessed in a lifetime spent at the movies. It was the pure bliss of maximum movie pleasure. That's when I knew I would return.

One coup later, I made it back in the summer (their winter, although you wouldn't know it) of 2001. The tension had spiked between the indigenous Fijians and the ever-growing Indo-Fijian population (Indians were brought over by the British in the 1870s as indentured servants on sugar plantations, and they still can't own tribal lands). In fact, Dhansukh had decided to immigrate to New Zealand and the theater was likely to close.

Within 24 hours, before Cinema Paradiso could become the Last Picture Show, I decided I had to buy it. I immediately reached out to my most successful indie discoveries to assemble the money for a foundation and (half seriously) future Fiji film colony--without the Kool-Aid.

The first request went to the reputedly generous Michael Moore, riding high on "Stupid White Men" and "Bowling for Columbine" these days. (He is the "Mike" in my book "Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes.") His six-word response: "Ugh, tell me this isn't happening." Had I miscalculated? Not at all. The next four pitches raised a six-figure kitty. Kevin Smith, Spike Lee, "South Park's" Matt Stone, and the "Blair Witch" partners all supported the cause, calling it absolutely crazy--as they sent in their checks.

Now we'll see if they come. Kevin already balked, observing that "there's too much dirt in the jungle." If Milla Jovovich is out there, you're invited back to the scene of your first film, "Return to the Blue Lagoon." It's the only feature ever shot in Taveuni (1988), and they're still talking about you.

In the end, what's the fun of being an amateur anthropologist halfway around the world in a land with no trades, no grosses, no toy tie-ins, no Entertainment Weekly "Entertainment Tonight," if you can't convince your family to come along for the ride. Quite unexpectedly, and with no coercion aside from the promise of a pet pig, my wife, Janet, daughter, Georgia, 15, and son, Wyatt, 12 (future pig owner), agreed. Collectively they leave behind a year of private school, PlayStation 2, MP3s, Dunkin' Donuts, instant messaging, orthodontia, malls, "TRL," yoga, Abercrombie & Fitch--for swarms of mosquitoes.

Swiss Family Robinson meet Fiji Family Pierson. We won't be scaling ropes into a treehouse, but life in a solar-powered, 125-year-old wooden plantation house--where the mud wasps and termites work overtime, the geckos eat the bugs, and the house girl cleans the gecko dung--will have its challenges.

At least Fijian cannibals stopped eating their vanquished enemies in the 1860s. One of the largest naval battles between Tonga and Fiji, fought in outrigger canoes, took place directly offshore from where the 180 Meridian Cinema stands. A French priest advised the fierce Fijians on strategy. They prevailed, baked the Tongans, and built the beautiful Catholic mission church to thank him. Our one local eatery, the Cannibal Cafe, would still "love to have you for dinner."

I wasn't necessarily thinking of some of today's real dangers when I plotted my escape. But after Sept. 11, a lot of people took it that way. I guess I'm just as happy to be getting my family far away from the nuclear power plant that sits like an inviting target 10 miles from our house.

If you ever saw the 1950s nuclear holocaust scare movie "On the Beach," you know that due to its extreme remoteness and prevailing winds, Fiji's quadrant is the safest spot on the globe.

What's our Hollywood ending? It's way too soon to tell. However, in a cautionary aside to studio executives, I'm here to tell you that Fijians won't care. With each film I've played this year, 15% to 20% of the audience walks out in the last two minutes. Whether they've loved the picture, or merely found it tolerable, no matter how predictable it's been all along, they just don't feel a need to see how it ends.

So all the market research screenings, rewrites, re-shoots, re-edits and further test screenings that consume the Hollywood studios are of no use here. And it's certainly not because anyone needs to beat the traffic home.

Sota tale.

John Pierson wrote "Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes" and created IFC's "Split Screen" after a decade of representing and financing many first-time features.

Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times

Photos added in by us and are all by Amy Elliott

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