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June, 2003. During the final month of their year-long stay in Fiji, indie-film gurus John and Janet Pierson and their two children host a documentary film crew. John's been showing free movies at the 288-seat 180 Meridian Cinema, in remote Natokalan Village on the island of Taveuni. Reality intrudes in paradise: their home is burgled, the local Catholic priest criticizes John's project, their daughter's behavior may be threatening the reputation of her friend, and John's prickly personality follows him. Against this backdrop, the Fijians laugh at the Three Stooges, Buster Keaton, and "Jackass: The Movie." John finishes the year with ten movies in ten days: do movies matter? Written by
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I'm not sure if director Steve James set out to show us a glowing example of 'The Ugly Americans,' or not, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he did. And he succeeds spectacularly, down to getting me so irritated that I almost stopped the DVD three different times. As a documentary, it's very well done, but the subject matter is an entirely different story.
This is an examination of a dysfunctional family of four who practise mini-cultural imperialism -- without apparently realizing it -- on the island of Taveuni in Fiji.
Director James allows us to share in the lives of the obnoxious Pierson family, Americans who insist on stereotyping a stereotype. Why are they seemingly incapable of understanding that it's not a good idea to fling themselves into the centre of an entire culture and expect that culture to embrace THEIR values?
The patriarch of this family is John Pierson, an independent film producer with two rotten kids he can't control. His wife Janet is also a film producer with even less control, but she does at least show some sensitivity toward the Fijians.
Their children, surly 13-year-old son Wyatt and obnoxious 16-year-old daughter Georgia (she regularly calls her mother an a**hole), freely scream at or insult their parents, without even a sprinkle of respect. Why the Piersons would allow James's camera to capture their glaring parental inadequacies is surprising, unless they were oblivious to it. While watching this film, the word 'oblivious' becomes a pervasive motif when applied to the parents.
Fiji is a complex and even fragile country divided almost down the middle between indigenous Fijians and Indian-Fijians whose ancestors were brought to the islands by the British as slaves in the 1870s. There have been three military and civilian coups on the islands in the past 20 years alone, something that isn't mentioned in this film.
The indigenous Fijians (Melanesians and Polynesians) are a soft-spoken people with an ancient culture. Enter the well-meaning but goofy Pierson, a guy who thinks it's a great idea to show 'Jackass' to the natives at the community movie theatre he has bought as a kind of experiment. Pierson doesn't seem to understand that 'Jackass' or The Three Stooges might be campy cultural references in America, but they don't necessarily translate the same way in Fiji.
A Fijian film distributor tells Pierson it is not a good idea to show 'Jackass,' but the dime-store impresario insists. Not long after, the Fijian government showed eminently good taste and banned that brainless movie for being too 'gross' and not consistent with Fijian values. I almost applauded when I read that.
At one point in this film, Pierson, wearing a Three Stooges t-shirt, says 'maybe I don't belong here'. An excellent bit of soul-searching.
This worthy film has its faults: it's far too long and often meanders. After almost two hours, I was glad to see the back end of this family. I suspect a lot of Fijians felt the same way.
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