Would you believe there’s a movie theater in a remote village in Fiji? It’s called the 180 Meridian, because the international dateline falls right in the middle of the island of Taveuni in the Fiji Islands.
When indie-film producer John Pierson ("She’s Gotta Have It," "Roger and Me") visited the 180 Meridian for a segment on his IFC show "Split-Screen," showing a Three Stooges movie the Fijians found hilarious, he knew he had to come back again and show more movies. Taking his family with him to Fiji for a year, Pierson set up shop at 180 Meridian and began showing free movies.
Though Pierson obviously had good intentions, thank goodness he wasn’t helming the documentary. He’s a bit bullheaded, sometimes short with the locals, and as far from the "Quiet American" as they come. Instead, filming was overseen by veteran documentarian Steve James ("Hoop Dreams"), who shows us the complex consequences of an American bringing free movies to remote island people. James also gets to know Pierson’s wife and kids, who are just as interesting, if not more, than their movie-missionary father. John’s wife Janet is friendly with the Fijians, always asking questions about their customs and their lives, but she grows a little bitter when the Piersons’ house is robbed twice and she loses her laptop computer. The Pierson’s daughter Georgia is a free-spirited, rebellious 16-year-old whose friendship with a teenage Fijian girl has consequences for the girl Georgia can’t fully comprehend. Son Wyatt is smart but skeptical of his father’s mission, explaining to him that the Fijians will hate "Apocalypse Now Redux" but love "Jackass," and of course he is right.
One of the most fascinating things about "Reel Paradise" is watching how the Fijians react to movies from the United States. An entire theater busts out laughing at "Bringing Down The House," not because of Queen Latifah’s sassy quips but because of the film’s obvious physical comedy. When Latifah is woken up by Steve Martin and accidentally punches him in the face, the Fijians roar with laughter. But when Pierson brings some student films from Temple University, the Fijians walk out of a twee short film called "Robot
Boy," without thinking twice about offending the film’s young director, who is sitting in the audience with them. But the Fijians’ two favorite films are "Jackass" and Buster Keaton’s "Steamboat Bill, Jr." It seems pratfalls and pain are the world’s universal language.
"Reel Paradise" is a brilliant documentary because it’s not interested in being a vanity piece about an eccentric American bringing cinematic delight to the natives. It’s a film about culture clash, about differences between the first and third world, and about the unintended consequences of bringing U.S. culture to indigenous people. But it’s always entertaining, funny and profoundly moving.