In his career as a feisty architect/advocate of independent film, John Pierson has worn many hats. He started out as the hard-bargain representative of such figures as Spike Lee and Michael Moore, then chronicled the early years of the movement he’d helped put on the map with his superb book Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes (1995), in which he revealed an instinct for packaging himself as a personality. Even as Pierson evolved into a self-styled indie-world ”guru,” the kind of guy who wears his ego on his Sundance badge, he always managed to do it in a brashly likable way.
Until now. The first role in Pierson’s career that looks awful on him is that of a family-man missionary bringing free movies to the natives in the egregious documentary Reel Paradise, directed by Hoop Dreams‘ Steve James. In 2002, Pierson, as a midlife experiment, moved his wife and two kids to the Fiji island of Taveuni to program the world’s most remote movie theater. For a year, he organized no-charge showings, mostly to kids, of films like Bringing Down the House and The Hot Chick. Sounds like a benign enough plan, but in Reel Paradise it becomes a righteous colonial stunt of nonstop hubris as Pierson, with his carrot-thin frame, gogglish specs, and gnashingly quick temper, traipses around Taveuni like the king of the white-man geeks, alternately proclaiming the saintliness of his crusade and throwing tantrums whenever somebody else fails to sufficiently recognize it. He throws an even bigger tantrum when his bungalow gets burgled, treating the robbery as the crime of the century, yet it never occurs to Pierson that he himself is guilty of using the impoverished children of Taveuni as props.