Reel Paradise is a reality TV-style telling of the story of a year in the life of John Pierson and his family. Pierson is a prominent figure in the indie film community, a producer who helped get the careers of such figures as Spike Lee, Michael Moore, and Kevin Smith off the ground, and who has authored books and hosted TV shows about movies. This film covers his unlikely sojourn on one of the Fiji islands, where he went for the adventure of buying and operating what might well be the most obscurely located movie theater in the world, right on the International Date Line.
This movie grew on me gradually. I’m still not convinced it was worth an hour and fifty minutes, but I was more bored early than late. There are a lot of elements to this movie, and as it went on I got drawn into multiple of them, and I realized the film was giving me plenty to think about.
You learn a bit about Fiji, or at least this little part of Fiji. There’s the culture clash between the American family and the locals—predictable that there’d be a clash; not always predictable in its particulars. There’s the role of American movies in a Third World country. And a considerable amount of time is devoted to exploring the interpersonal dynamics within the Pierson family.
All these areas are at least somewhat interesting, and as I say, raise issues worth pondering.
One of the things we don’t get to find out is whether Pierson would have been capable of operating a theater in such a location at a profit, since he makes zero effort to do so. In fact, he doesn’t even charge—it’s free movies night after night for anyone on the island who’s interested. (The audiences seem to be disproportionately children, but all age groups are represented.)
The movies being free is significant because the bulk of the people on the island are dirt poor and rarely if ever indulge in such luxuries as going to a movie. Most people with any money on the island are immigrants, mostly Indians, who are resented but without whom the economy, such as it is, would fall apart. The native Fijians mostly live in squalor.
Especially in the early portion of the film, the impression I had of living conditions on the island was a lot more negative than positive. Though some of the scenery is of the “island paradise” variety, and I’m sure the touristy areas of a place like Fiji are kept scrupulously inviting, this is mostly creepy Third World stuff—lots of crime, heavy poverty, racial and ethnic tensions, a certain amount of primitive Christianity imposed from outside, routine domestic violence (one local girl is amazed that the Piersons argue the way they do, as she’s used to parents settling matters by hitting each other or the kids), and nothing much resembling a Puritan work ethic.
The house they are renting is burglarized twice, which provides an introduction to maybe my favorite character of the film—the drunk, comically shifty Australian landlord. He’s the only one other than the Piersons with a key to their rental house, and the circumstantial evidence points to him being involved in one or both of the burglaries.
In reaction to one of the burglaries, he defensively offers a convoluted explanation of why he didn’t investigate the frantic dog barking at the time (at least I think that’s what he’s talking about) that involves some kind of distinction among different kinds of barks he can recognize—barks directed toward other dogs, barks directed toward strangers, barks directed toward known enemies, etc.—and he works in the delightful phrase “dog forensics” to describe what he’s doing. I also like his line later concerning a different matter, when in response to the question “Did you call him a cunt?” he says, “Not to my knowledge.”
Pierson is a mostly liberal guy with a bemused take on things, but he’s assertive enough, and flashes enough of a temper on occasion, to open himself up to accusations of “Ugly American” behavior, of being too aggressive with the locals and not conforming to their way of doing things.
I understand there can be pragmatic reasons for playing along with the local customs and such, but leaving that aside, I mostly don’t agree with the implication of those who offer this criticism that there’s something inherently inappropriate and disrespectful about an American not following the rule of “when in Fiji, do as the Fijians do.”
I’m not a relativist. If Americans in general, or Pierson in particular, behave a certain way, speak a certain way, treat people a certain way, etc., and most people in Fiji do differently, I think it’s an open question whether the American way is better, the Fijian way is better, or they’re equal. If Pierson is honest and frankly speaks his mind in a way that the typical Fijian does not, I’m certainly open to an argument that he’s in the wrong in doing so, but that argument better have some premises beyond “He’s in Fiji and that’s not what’s normally done in Fiji.”
Again, as a pragmatic thing, it makes sense to try to not be so different from the people you’re living amongst as to generate distrust and hostility, but I don’t think conformity to local customs is some sort of duty you owe them.
I found Pierson to be a moderately likable guy. And I’d say his wife is about equally or slightly more sympathetic a character. There’s a certain uncertainty and unsteadiness to her at times, in the way she deals with this bizarrely unfamiliar environment, and the way she parents, but you get the sense her heart’s in the right place and she’s doing her best. There’s a humility to her, a sense that she’s aware she’s not real good at some of this stuff and she’s not always going to make the best choices, but that you need to live with your imperfections and the consequences of your imperfections and in the long run things will probably be OK (or at least better than if you let it upset you excessively, lashed out at others, gave up, etc.).
Rounding out the family are a 16 year old daughter and a 13 year old son. To me, the daughter is cute to very cute, but my guess is that in an upscale American high school she would not be considered super hot and would not live the lifestyle of a 9 or 10. So it’s no surprise that she revels in the popularity and desirability that comes from being the only white girl in an impoverished area in the Third World.
The “morals” of the locals are evidently rather lax, by some standards anyway—a Fijian notes early in the film that the teenage girls typically have a lot of boyfriends, and goes on to strongly imply that “boyfriends” in this context means lovers, i.e., that they’re sexually active—and the perpetually bare-midriffed tramp-stamped 16 year old daughter seems to be getting as much action as she wants, judging from her neck being perpetually covered in hickeys, and her sometimes staying out the entire night.
She can get mouthy and rebellious with her parents, but on the whole seems like an OK kid, probably no more immature than average for her age. I liked her more than not.
The 13 year old—who gets by far the least screen time of the four—I found decidedly more irritating. He’s at an age where his way of asserting his independence is to gainsay whatever his parents say, to criticize the films his father shows, to basically be an ignorant cynic. It’s all a transparent pose. He argues everything not because he has legitimate reasons to be on the other side, but because he wants to argue everything. The disagreement comes first; the reasons he thinks up afterward as he goes along. In his attempts to joust with his father and score points with putdowns, he’s like a bad insult comic with weak material and no sense of timing.
It’s interesting, then, that when I browsed a few reviews of this movie, I found that the son was typically singled out as the best character of the four, the one who kept things in perspective, the one who punctured the efforts of the others to maintain a “superior American” attitude about themselves, etc.
I will say I liked him more when he was interviewed (which is mostly late in the film) than when he was interacting with his family (which is mostly earlier in the film). I thought he made some thoughtful observations. And I was also impressed at how his father—the most common object of his attacks and criticism—speaks so glowingly of him near the end of the film in an interview segment. Not in the sense of “Yes he’s annoying now, but we’re confident he’ll grow out of it,” but that overall even now he manifests mostly admirable qualities and is a great kid.
So I bumped up my assessment of him, but I’d probably still rank him fourth.
But one thing that occurred to me as the film was drawing to a close is that really all four of them handle this year surprisingly well. The internal dynamics are far from ideal (the thing that is most noticeable to me is that the parents don’t seem able—or perhaps it’s by choice—to do anything about the intermittent brattiness and defiance of the kids), and they’re dealing with burglaries, cockroaches, awkwardness and miscommunication due to cultural differences, dengue fever, and on and on, but when you get right down to it they mostly like their lives there. You’d think that one or more of them would whine constantly and demand to go back to America, or that there’d be a lot more fighting amongst themselves or something, but apparently whatever they’re doing works. The parenting might seem shaky and too yielding to me, and their way of interacting with the Fijians might not be sufficiently grounded in relativism and respect for local ways for some people’s tastes, but the end result is a year I have to think they will look back on favorably as filled with powerful memories and growth, both as individuals and as a family.
What I liked most about the Fijians watching the free movies is that they appreciated even things they’re not supposed to like. Among the films that drew the heartiest laughter was a Three Stooges short where the boys are comically battling savages on a Pacific island (Some More of Samoa). Buster Keaton went over big too. Good for them.
I could write considerably more, as I’m finding that the more I think back on the movie, the more I’m reminded of things worth commenting on, but I’ll cut it off here.
I’ll give Reel Paradise at least a mild recommendation. (It could have earned a more hearty recommendation if it had had more of the boozy Australian landlord, who put me in mind of the Michael Palin character in the Monty Python Pet Shop sketch.)