Hawaii has played paradise in countless movies, but the islands’ history hasn’t always been perfect. Anthony Banua-Simon’s illuminating documentary “Cane Fire” (now in theaters) traces how the lives of Hawaiians have been shaped by the powerful plantation and tourism industries, as well as the US government, for more than 100 years. ‘a century.
Growing up in Washington State, Banua-Simon had family on the island of Kauai. He had felt like an outsider, but he continued to feel drawn to depictions of the island. In his film, he goes behind the kitsch, contrasting clips from Hollywood films and interviews with family members, activists and newcomers to the island. (The title comes from a 1934 melodrama filmed in Kauai, directed by Lois Weber.)
I spoke with Banua-Simon about Kauai’s divisive history and how displacement is a matter of both real estate and public image. This interview has been condensed and edited.
What are the family ties that inspired the film?
I had just finished a short documentary called “Third Shift”, about the Domino sugar refinery in Brooklyn, and I was doing more research on the sugar trade around the world. I knew my family in Hawaii was involved, but I didn’t know that my great-great-grandmother worked the Puerto Rican sugar cane fields extracting the raw product to be refined at Domino Sugar. She eventually emigrated from Puerto Rico to Hawaii, and my family history continued there with her daughter meeting my great-grandfather, Alberto, who immigrated from the Philippines.
So I grabbed my camera and went to hang out with my great-uncle, Henry. He started out in the pineapple cannery and drove a truck to the sugar cane plantations, then when tourism and Hollywood came along, he was an extra crew member. He was also involved with the ILWU, which was Hawaii’s strongest union, representing sugar and pineapple workers. It has been transformative for the creation of affordable housing from the existing plantation structure. So I had this pride in my family’s resilience and strong characters.
What role has Hollywood played in Kauai’s history?
I watched all the major Hollywood films that had been produced on the island. I broke it down like Thom Andersen’s “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” where it has the categories of Los Angeles as a character, Los Angeles as a backdrop, Los Angeles as a subject. I discovered that from the 1930s there was a very deliberate public relations campaign by the “Big Five” [five prominent corporations in sugar and other industries]. They were receiving criticism for their work practices, and so they helped promote the idea of the South Seas fantasy. They brought tourists to the island on steamboats and influenced newspaper articles and radio shows, and they collaborated with MGM to make those lighthearted fantasies come true.
Then the United States became involved in the creation of military outposts [in the area], and they focused on selling the idea of a state, which involved tourism and pro-military productions. So [in 1952] you have John Wayne in “Big Jim McLain” cracking down on the Communists [in Hawaii]. Then in the 1980s and 1990s, there is this celebration of wealth and luxury and the idea that there is harmony on the islands, that there is no conflict, even if the struggle for land and power has always been in Hawaii in various ways.
The first Hollywood production in Kauai [“Cane Fire”] was filmed on a sugar cane plantation at the same time as my great-grandfather, Alberto, was working at the adjacent pineapple cannery. It may have been documented, but I don’t know because the movie is officially lost. But I thought it was a good introduction to those parallel worlds of how Kauai was portrayed in Hollywood and the material realities of life on the island.
What is the history of the defunct Coco Palms resort, where you follow the militants occupying the land?
Coco Palms straddles native Hawaiian history, as it sits on Kauai’s holiest land, where kings and queens lived, and where there are several burial sites and temples. The manager, Grace Guslander, loved the pageantry and created a torch-lighting ceremony. She loved hosting celebrities, so she made signs with everyone’s name at the base of all the palm trees in the yard. So you pass and see “Bob Hope”, but under those signs are the remains of native Hawaiians.
Native Hawaiian activists began restoring the space and holding ceremonies, and it ended in their forced eviction. But the new promoter who arrived did not repay his loan. Now space is desolate again. The latest development is that a non-profit organization is trying to get Mark Zuckerberg to buy the property as a kind of cultural center.
You also show how complex history is for locals who make their living in the tourism industry, like “Uncle” Larry Rivera, the musician.
For him, it’s a total dream: a young man grows up on the plantation and hangs out with Bing Crosby and Elvis. He worked his way up and he succeeded. But those are days gone, and he thinks those opportunities are still available to people my age or his grandkids. Everything is tricky because good or bad is part of the story. Elvis [who starred in “Blue Hawaii”] is part of the story, and there’s a certain conflicted nostalgia among the locals I’ve spoken to. When they see a film that exoticizes this beautiful place where they live, it makes sense.
What is a film faithful to the complexity of Hawaii?
It’s a little more difficult in the studio system than in independent films. People have always had a fun relationship with Alexander Payne’s film “The Descendants” with its “white man’s burden” storyline – where Clooney is hampered by the discomfort of being a landowner in Hawaii. I really like Christopher Yogi’s films: “August at Akiko’s” and “I Was a Simple Man”. He uniquely creates his own language for his experience living in Hawaii.