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Trouble in 'Paradise': Family Drama Dominates Doc on Fijian Free Film

By Debra Kaufman

Wyatt Pierson (center right), son of John and Janet Pierson, at school in Fiji. From Steve James' 'Reel Paradise.' Photo: Amy Bliott

In July 2002, John and Janet Pierson and their two children packed their bags and moved to Taveuni, a remote Fijian island. Eleven months later, they asked filmmaker Steve James to come and make a movie about their experiences. The result is Reel Paradise.

This was no ordinary tale of Americans abroad. John Pierson is a noted rainmaker for indie filmmakers, having helped to bring the work of first-time filmmakers--including Spike Lee, Michael Moore, Kevin Smith and Richard Linklater--to the screen. He was also creator and host of Split Screen, a half-hour magazine format TV show on IFC. It was that TV program that led John and his wife, Janet, who has partnered professionally with her husband since 1986, to the 180 Meridian Cinema on Taveunu, one of the most remote cinemas on the planet.

The unadulterated emotional reactions of Fijians to the showing of the Three Stooges' short Some More of Samoa, sparked an idea for John: Call in all his markers and open the 180 Meridian Cinema for a year-long festival of free movies. The idea of documenting the experience was integral. "From the moment we all had that first experiences with the Three Stooges, I had it in the back of my mind that this was an experience that needed to be shared," he says. After 30 seconds of hesitation, Janet also agreed to participate. The Piersons scratched out a "very, very short list" of filmmakers and called the first person on the list: Steve James, whom they both admired for the sensibility of his documentaries (The New Americans, Stevie, Hoop Dreams) and for the fact that, as a father of three teenagers, he would understand the Pierson family dynamics, a point that proved crucial later on.

From the first e-mailed invitation, says James, he was "gung ho" about making the film, in part because it would be such a different experience from his previous films, which followed subjects for years. "Certainly, I had some nervousness about the idea of shooting an entire film in a month, especially given my modus operandi," says James. "On the other hand, it was an exciting prospect. It was refreshing to think I'd shoot an entire film in a month and within a year, we'd have finished the film."

First, there was the matter of determining who would control the direction the film took--not a slam dunk when your subjects are sophisticated film industry figures. "One of the things that John made clear from the start, which was essential to me, is that it's my film," James says. "Even though he'd be an executive producer, because he put it together, creatively I would have final cut." Most important for James was that the film not be perceived as a vanity project, something that the Piersons understood and readily acceded to.

In June 2003, James went to Fiji with a small crew and an even smaller kit. He shot 90 percent of the film with Sony DigiBeta, using his Sony PD-150 for a handful of shots, including those taken from a car. "HD was not practical at all, given where we were going," he explains. "And we could have gone conceivably with some of the smaller formats, but since we were going to Fiji, a beautiful place, we wanted it to be as pretty and high-quality video as we could get away with." Also, points out James, "The DigiBeta blows up quite nicely" to 35mm, which they ultimately did for the theatrical release.

The crew consisted of director of photography/co-producer P.H. O'Brien, soundman Rich Pooler and line producer Gita Saedi. James credits O'Brien, who had already befriended many locals when he accompanied Pierson on the original trip to Fiji, with smoothing the way with the locals. Pooler brought a lot of international experience and the ability to fix and figure things out in a remote locale, and Saedi, who was the series producer of The New Americans, was also very familiar with international shooting.

In key scenes, Reel Paradise fulfills John Pierson's original intent: We see the pure joy and enthusiasm of the Fijians to movies as disparate as Steamboat Bill, Jr. and Jackass, with classic fare such as Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship and Gangs of New York mixing it up with Sorority Boys, Bringing Down the House and a healthy sprinkling of Bollywood features and silent era shorts.

What neither the Piersons nor James had counted on was the degree to which the Pierson family would take center stage. In that last month, drama unfolded from day to day: John and Janet's laptop computers were stolen, and the search for them cast a wide net of suspicion; a confrontation with the landlord got almost ugly; John caught dengue fever. And--in the most raw scenes16-year-old daughter Georgia defied and confronted her parents at every turn. It all made for great drama, but the Pierson family dynamics (it's impossible not to think of the Loud family) was at times a jarring counterpoint to the story of the Piersons' complex and intriguing relationship with their Fijian neighbors and friends, and often confrontational relationship with other Westerners, including the aforementioned landlord and an aggrieved priest.

It all came to a head the day that James showed his "subjects" a rough cut of the film. "I'm of the school of documentary filmmaking where you show your subjects the film before it's done and give them an opportunity to weigh in on the film you're making," he explains. "I think it is part and parcel of the kind of trust I've been able to build with subjects."

The documentary's treatment of Georgia--who, in many ways, became the most interesting character in the film--seemed especially harsh to her as well as to her sympathetic parents. A typical American teen struggling for control, Georgia was also clearly at ease in the environment and culture. "Those are the kinds of rich complexities that happen in real life and make you want to make documentaries," says James.

John's most pointed feedback was that he felt James hadn't captured a strong enough feel for the Fijian movie-going experience. "Steve honored certain adjustments we were striving for and we're all pleased with the outcome," Pierson concludes. James also admits that he knew going in that it was going to be "a much more intensive back-and-forth process between filmmaker and subject" than he'd had before. But he welcomed the critique. "Without reservation, I can say it made it a better film," he says. "I didn't do everything they wanted me to do. There were things they'd wished I'd done that I didn't. But I took their criticism seriously."

"The easiest thing would have been to shoot fish in a barrel over 'white man goes abroad to show movies to poor third world people,'" James continues. "But I tried in the film to show how complicated the experience was for them as a family. John's presence wasn't without conflict and incident. But what he did will not be forgotten. The degree to which the film became more of a family story--not just the Piersons' interaction with Fijian culture but with themselves--just evolved over time. I'm a believer in letting the film be what the film wants to be."

Reel Paradise opens theatrically in August and September through Wellspring Media.


Debra Kaufman covers the entertainment industry for numerous publications including The Hollywood Reporter and Film & Video, and has just completed her first documentary, A School of Their Own.