Hawaii has played paradise in countless movies, but the history of the islands hasn’t always been picture-perfect. Anthony Banua-Simon’s illuminating documentary “Cane Fire” traces how the lives of Hawaii residents have been shaped by the powerful plantation and tourist industries, as well as the U.S. government, for well over a century.
Growing up in Washington state, Banua-Simon had family on the island of Kauai. He’d felt like an outsider, but he kept feeling drawn to portrayals of the island. In his film, he goes behind the kitsch, contrasting clips from Hollywood movies with interviews with family members, activists and newcomers to the island. (The title comes from a 1934 melodrama shot on Kauai, directed by Lois Weber.)
I spoke with Banua-Simon about Kauai’s conflicted history and how displacement is a matter of both real estate and public image. This interview has been condensed and edited.
Question: What were the family connections that helped inspire the movie?
Answer: I had just finished a short documentary called “Third Shift,” about the Domino Sugar Refinery in Brooklyn, and I was doing more research about the sugar trade globally. I knew that my family in Hawaii were involved, but I didn’t know that my great-great-grandmother was working in the sugar fields in Puerto Rico that were extracting the raw product to be refined at Domino Sugar. She eventually emigrated from Puerto Rico to Hawaii, and my family story continued there with her daughter meeting my great-grandfather, Alberto, who immigrated from the Philippines.
So I grabbed my camera and went to spend time with my great-uncle, Henry. He started in the pineapple cannery and drove a truck for the sugar plantations, and then, when tourism and Hollywood were coming in, he was an extra crew member. He was also involved in the ILWU, which was Hawaii’s strongest labor union, representing sugar and pineapple workers. It was transformative for creating affordable housing out of the existing plantation structure. So I had this pride in the resilience of my family and the strong characters.
Q: What role did Hollywood play in the history of Kauai?
A: I watched every major Hollywood film that had been produced on the island. I broke it down much in the way of Thom Andersen’s “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” where he has the categories of Los Angeles as a character, Los Angeles as a backdrop, Los Angeles as a subject. I discovered that starting in the 1930s, there was a very deliberate PR campaign by the “Big Five” (five prominent corporations in sugar and other industries). They were getting criticism for their labor practices, and so they helped foster the idea of the South Seas fantasy. They would bring tourists to the island on steamships and influenced newspaper articles and radio broadcasts, and they collaborated with MGM to make these light fantasies.
Then the U.S. got involved in making military outposts (in the area), and they were focused on selling the idea of statehood, which involved tourism and pro-military productions. So (in 1952) you have John Wayne in “Big Jim McLain” cracking down on communists (in Hawaii). Then in the 1980s and ’90s, there’s this celebration of wealth and luxury and the idea that there’s harmony on the islands, there’s no conflict, even though 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 plantation at the same time that my great-grandfather, Alberto, was working at the adjacent pineapple cannery. He might have been documented, but I don’t know because the movie is officially lost. But I thought it was a good introduction to these parallel worlds of how Kauai was being represented in Hollywood, and the material realities of living on the island.
Q: What’s the story of the defunct Coco Palms resort, where you follow activists occupying the land?
A: Coco Palms overlaps with Native Hawaiian history, because it’s on the most sacred land on Kauai, where the kings and queens lived, and where several burial sites and temples are. The manager, Grace Guslander, loved pageantry and created a torch lighting ceremony. She loved hosting celebrities, so she made placards with everyone’s name at the base of all the palm trees in the yard. So you walk by and see “Bob Hope,” but below these placards are the remains of Native Hawaiians.
The Native Hawaiian activists began restoring the space and having ceremonies, and it ended with them being forcibly ejected. But the new developer that was coming in defaulted on their loan. Now the space is back to looking desolate. The latest development is that a nonprofit is trying to get Mark Zuckerberg to purchase the property as a kind of a cultural center.
Q: You also show how the history is complex for locals making a living in the tourist industry, like “Uncle” Larry Rivera, the musician.
A: For him it’s a total dream: a young man grows up on the plantation and gets to hang out with Bing Crosby and Elvis. He worked his way up, and he was able to be successful. But that’s a past era, and he thinks these opportunities are still available to people my age or his grandchildren. It’s all tricky because whether good or bad, it’s part of the history. Elvis (who starred in “Blue Hawaii”) is part of the history, and there’s some conflicted nostalgia among locals who I’ve talked to. When they see a movie that exoticizes this beautiful place where they live, it has an allure.
Q: What’s a movie that’s faithful to the complexity of Hawaii?
A: It’s a bit harder in the studio system than in independent films. People always had a funny relationship with “The Descendants,” the Alexander Payne film, with its “white man’s burden” plot — where Clooney is inconvenienced by the uncomfortableness of being a landowner in Hawaii. I really love Christopher Yogi’s films: “August at Akiko’s” and “I Was a Simple Man.” He’s uniquely creating his own language for his experience of living in Hawaii.
Editor’s note: This article was published in The New York Times earlier this year.
>> When: The documentary will screen at the Honolulu Museum of Art’s Doris Duke Theatre at 7 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Oct. 20; and 2 p.m. Oct. 30. The Saturday screening will be followed by a discussion with film director Anthony Banua-Simon.
>> Cost: $15, $12 for museum members
>> Info: honolulumuseum.org or 808-532-8700