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'Reel Paradise': Moving Theater Experience in Fiji

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'Reel Paradise': Moving Theater Experience in Fiji


'Reel Paradise': Moving Theater Experience in Fiji

'Reel Paradise': Moving Theater Experience in Fiji

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

American movie buff and independent filmmaker John Pierson moved his family to Fiji in 2002 in search of "the world's most remote theater." The documentary Reel Paradise chronicles his experience showing free films to Fijians, and the surprising reactions he got to some of his movie choices. Alex Chadwick speaks with the documentary's director Steve James.


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

For his impact on American culture, it's odd that more people don't know about John Pierson. He's a movie nut who is obsessively, perhaps brilliantly devoted to independent films. Influential directors like Spike Lee and Kevin Smith and video polemicist Michael Moore all got huge career boosts because John Pierson noticed their work before anyone else did, thought they were great, raised money for them, promoted their films. Now John Pierson is in a movie, "Reel," spelled R-E-E-L, "Paradise," the story of how he came to run the most remote movie theater in the world and what happened.

Mr. JOHN PIERSON: One of the unique factors of this theater is that it's got these beautiful shuttered windows. At night, it's the greatest thing in the world to have a movie with the windows open. The breeze is off the water. You have stars in the sky. It's not like you're in a sealed-up box in a mall in America. You're part of nature even when you're inside this theater.

CHADWICK: That's John Pierson going on about this theater, a 1950s small movie palace way out in the Pacific Ocean on one of the Fiji islands. He moved his family there a few years ago, and with support from some of those directors he helped make rich, he set out to show movies on that island for a year. And toward the end of that year, he invited Steve James, who made the basketball documentary "Hoop Dreams." And that led to this funny and affecting film that's out now, "Reel Paradise." `Maybe John Pierson's key decision,' Steve James says, `was to show these movies for free.'

Mr. STEVE JAMES ("Hoop Dreams"): We would talk to people in Fiji who have very fond memories of going to that theater as a kid and seeing, you know, John Wayne movies. So this was not a new thing by John coming and showing the kinds of movies he showed. What was new was--is that in the current economic climate of this very poor island, suddenly now a new generation of kids and people who hadn't been to that theater could actually go to that theater.

CHADWICK: John Pierson goes to Fiji. He's shown "The Three Stooges."

Mr. JAMES: Yeah. Well, and they've been showing "The Three Stooges" at this theater for 50 years. But to be fair, he also did show other things. He showed "Apocalypse Now," OK, didn't go over so big. He did try and, you know, broaden it out some, but, you know, John recognized certain things here and he's not some highbrow. What he wanted was a packed house every night with that audience loving a movie. That was the important thing, and if that meant bringing down the house, then that's what he was going to bring.

(Soundbite of people reacting to a movie)

CHADWICK: You've probably met people like John Pierson. They're a type, something burning inside them and at any moment, it's either going to flash like a dazzling comet of genius or burn the whole place down with you inside it. That's John Pierson. He must be hell to live with, but you'd never get bored.

(Soundbite of people reacting to a movie)

CHADWICK: Here he is. He's going to Paradise, but Paradise never turns out to be paradise. It turns out to be just like the place you left accept different in some way. His teen-age daughter goes through normal teen-age years, which means she's totally on the outs with her parents. His house is broken into repeatedly. The local Catholic Church begins a movement to have the movie theater shut down or have him run out of town. It really doesn't go quite the way he'd imagined.

Mr. JAMES: No, it doesn't, you know, and I think that that's the truth that people who really spend any time in a very different culture come to realize. And it was important to me as a filmmaker going into that situation that if we were going to show the Piersons in as candid a light as we showed them, both as a family and in their interactions with the culture, it was also important to show that culture in as candid a light. And so you see things, like, you know, projectionists who don't show up. And you see and understand, I think, some of the frustration that a Westerner feels living in a third-world environment.

(Soundbite from "Reel Paradise")

Mr. JOHN PIERSON: As always, it's great to see you guys here. Quiet down for a minute. And I always like to tell you the truth, so I'm gonna tell you the truth tonight. Namaj and Domingo are both--had way too much grog and arusa. Neither one of them thought that it was important to come and show a movie to the 300 of you waiting here. I guess we're gonna have to just not have a show tonight and just come back and do it all over again tomorrow.

Unidentified Child: ...(Unintelligible).

Unidentified Group of Children: (In unison) Boo!

Mr. JAMES: I think that's important, too, because I think we have a tendency to want to idealize poor farmers and fishermen in Fiji and think that they are the noble ones and that the Westerners coming into their midst are the real problem. I mean, one of the things that I came to believe and observe when I was there filming for that month was that the Piersons, as a family, collectively and individually, kind of came for me to represent the differing ways that America is in the world at large. You know, from sort of, you know, the bluntness that John displayed to the differing ways that each of the family members tried to ingratiate themselves with the culture or remain at ironic distance to the culture. And I thought that that was pretty fascinating.

CHADWICK: And you also see this friend of John Pierson's son, Fijian boy...

Mr. JAMES: Tuwaki(ph).

CHADWICK: ...Tuwaki. You go to his house and you talk to his mother who says heartbreakingly, for me watching this scene, `My son who's become--who's practically living with the Piersons--he's such a good friend of the Pierson boy--my son is now ashamed of us. He's ashamed of our family, of our home, of our culture.'

Mr. JAMES: You know, there are just certain contradictions that are inescapable, I think, when you are from a place like America and have lived a privileged life. By American standards, the house that the Piersons were living in Fiji was pretty poor. Yes, it had a lot of room, but it didn't have electricity. You had to sleep under mosquito netting. By Fijian standards, they were living in a lap of luxury and there was always something to do in that house. So Wyatt's friends would hang out with him all the time there because that was the place to hang out. You'd get cookies, you'd get ice cream, you'd get all these things you could eat there that were a luxury for him in their own homes.

CHADWICK: So what happens to John Pierson at the end of 12 months in Fiji at this experiment of his and trying to see if he can live in a very small isolated community and happily run a movie theater?

Mr. JAMES: Well, I think John was affected by this. He says near the end of the film that he's an old dog and it's hard to learn new tricks and that the impact of this experience was going to be far greater on his children than on him. He recognizes that. But I do think it's complicated with a guy like John because as his son says, he is who is wherever he is. He's sort of a bigger, larger-than-life American wherever he is. But I think some things absolutely got in there that, you know, shape the way he looks at the world and looks at that experience in the world.

CHADWICK: Filmmaker Steve James. His movie about film buff John Pierson is called "Reel Paradise." It's playing at film theaters around the country now.

I'm Alex Chadwick. More just ahead on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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