John Pierson, author of Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes, was instrumental in launching the careers of Richard Linklater, Michael Moore, Kevin Smith, and Spike Lee, but after soaking up some 20 years of independent cinema, the man’s brain needed rinsing out. Leaving his popular IFC show Split Screen behind, Pierson packed up the wife and kids and moved to Fiji for a year to expand on a story he did for his show about the most remote movie theater in the world. With one month left to go, Steve James arrives to document the family’s experience bringing free movies to the residents of Taveuni and immediately you get a sense that the Pierson clan has likely worked out too many of the kinks in their life on the Fiji island for James to come up with a compelling narrative, but even if the Hoop Dreams director doesn’t exactly illuminate the cause of Pierson’s ostensibly cine-humanist venture (a church official is right to wonder if he came to Fiji more for himself or the people who live there) or fails to address what kind of socio-cultural and emotional hole the man’s departure will have on the people of Taveuni, Reel Paradise unravels as a surprisingly captivating and touching chronicle of culture clash—like a Real World meets Swiss Family Robinson Indiewood experiment.
While his kids adjust to the rituals of adolescent life on the island and his wife grapples with yet another burglary to their home (the family’s confrontation with their Australian landlord evokes a sick joke out of some situation comedy), Pierson worries about bringing bad Hollywood movies like Bringing Down the House and The Hot Chick to the socially-deprived masses with the help of a distributor in Suva. Rabbit-Proof Fence is as independent as the selections get, not because Pierson has tired of independent cinema per se but because he seems to see a parallel between the American and Fiji audience’s desire for “dumb things.” So, there you have it: John Pierson, unlikely defender of big Hollywood productions, egged on from the sidelines by his hysterical 13-year-old son, a total cunt who likens the family’s experience on the island to CSI: Fiji because local police have the capability of dusting for fingerprints and who seems to know more about the relationship between audiences and movies than your average marketing honcho at a Hollywood studio (he challenges his dad to play Apocalypse Now Redux two days in a row and watch as no one shows up for the second day). They may or may not study Reel Paradise in schools as an example of the effects of lousy Western hand-outs on a culture that probably didn’t need them but it’s sure to play in film courses as an example of how the Guru of Independent Film sadly came to bow before the altar of the Hollywood blockbuster.