The Hawaiian Island of Kauai’i. To most people, Kauai’i is known as “the Garden Isle” and the backdrop to more than a hundred Hollywood feature films – from the famous Elvis Presley scenes in Blue Hawaii, to Jurassic Park, and more. What may not be known is the devastating effects of colonialism and oppression on the island.
In his debut feature documentary, Cane Fire (2020), Anthony Banua-Simon shares the complicated history of Kauai’i and its lasting effects. Banua-Simon interlaces modern conversations with generations of his own family and activists, Hollywood films and archival footage. Through the memories of interviewees, we hear firsthand the drastic changes on the island. The documentary begins with Kauai’i’s sugar industry in 1778 and the conflict between Native Hawaiians and missionaries, to the control of Hawaii’s economy by five sugar and pineapple companies known as the Big Five in 1893, to Hollywood’s glamorization of the island, and to tourism as its dominant industry today.
Despite jumping around different points on the historical timeline, viewers are still able to gain a seamless understanding of the cyclic exploitation of indigenous Native Hawaiians and working-class residents. During the plantation era, the island’s industry became a for-profit economy. Not only was the land and economy taken over, but parts of the Hawaiian practices and language were even made illegal. The Big Five imported workforce from various ethnic populations into ethnically segregated camps. Workers were scarcely living day-by-day with their little pay, and any of their efforts to organize were shut down – typically by pitting new ethnic populations against one another.
In addition to the destruction of Kauai’i’s agricultural economy and culture, Banua-Simon includes clips of the forcible removal of residents from their homes. In 1898, the United States began to view Hawaii as a strategic naval base, which led to the annexation of the islands. Native Hawaiians who wanted to keep their home and land had to qualify under the prohibitive Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, and those who couldn’t meet those guidelines were forcibly removed. One of the most impactful parts of the film includes interviews and footage about present-day Native activists fighting to reclaim one of the most sacred lands on Kauai’i where the popular Coco Palms Hotel was built. Just like decades ago when families were removed from their homes as part of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, the same is happening here now.
With the aid of Hollywood films, Kauai’i’s industry transitioned into tourism and Native Hawaiian culture continued to be eradicated by Western ideas. Locals were often cast in these films, but only ever in the background as plantation workers, tribesmen, or “madmen” labor revolters. Banau-Simon incorporates several of these clips, and with few, subtle commentary, is able to communicate a powerful message about the blatant discrimination in these films.
One of the largest effects of Hollywood’s perception of Kauai’i is the soaring property value. Kauai’i is marketed as a paradise fantasy, but only for those who can afford it. Today, the highest cost of living in the United States is in Hawaii. At the end of the documentary, there are distasteful clips showing non-Natives calling themselves “residents” who only visit 1-2 months per year, imitating Hawaiian culture, and even mocking the Hawaiian language.
In an interview with Ruby Jane and Grandma Rivera, two of the few original residents living in actual plantation housing, they mention that their homes are just another piece of land waiting to be taken – “They’re just waiting for us to die out one by one.” In another interview, a distraught Mike Wong has been working through back and hips injuries he sustained years ago from working at the sugar plantation. “I gotta take painkillers. Killing myself to pay for this house so my wife doesn’t have to sleep in a car and be homeless. And my sons.”
Native Hawaiians and working-class residents today are still suffering from past actions while fighting present-day actions. While out-of-state buyers are purchasing these dream “plantation-style” homes, locals could barely afford their own homes. And all these fantastical mansions and luxury clubs are built on stolen land.
Kauai’i is not just “the Garden Isle” we’ve seen in the media; it is a place of complicated history that is being erased by for-profit efforts. Cane Fire is an essential watch to understand the cyclic exploitation that has carried forward into modern-day Kauai’i. Banua-Simon shares this history through different lenses, while fearlessly critiquing Hollywood and the wealthy.
Cane Fire screens at the drive-in at Stonehouse Cafe along with the short film Malahini on Saturday, March 12. Tickets are limited. It screens online March 3 -13. Festival passes and tickets here.