“Cane Fire,” the new documentary by Anthony Banua- Simon (who directed, filmed and edited), starts with the search for the long out-of-print, “White Heat,” a 1934 drama, which was the first film shot on Kauai. Interviews with Banua-Simon’s elderly Uncle Henry and others within his circle become the starting point for this documentary. It becomes a large scale discussion of Kauai’s history, both as a haven for American cinema and a place where the extras on those film were not shown any “aloha” in their real lives but grappled to survive the hardships of their land being taken away and their culture being misrepresented and/or exploited for western movies.
What begins as a deceptively simple look at a filmmaker trying to track down an obscure film shot on Kauai expands into a thorough and passionate exploration of Hawaii before and after statehood, with a focus on how “The Big Five” sugar and pineapple companies altered and controlled the events leading Hawaii into a tourist haven.
Those unfamiliar with the events of 1893, the sugar and pineapple plantation days and how tourism (and, subsequently, Hollywood filmmakers) swarmed the Hawaiian Islands will find this especially absorbing. There have been more exhaustive and angrier films than what Banua-Smith has come up with, though he admirably never tips his hat and overstates his points.
A recap of how “The Big Five” overtook the land in 1893 is contrasted with striking scenes of abandoned sugar mills, the run-down, legendary Coco Palms Hotel and the activists who stay on the property and work to preserve the land. We meet “Uncle” Larry Rivera, who performed at the hotel during its heyday- his concluding scenes in a courtroom are especially sad and fascinating. Scenes that present Hawaii’s complex, tortured history are intertwined with footage of movies made in the islands, in which “interchangeable” local characters were played by local actors (or not- there are scenes in “Diamond Head,” among many others, where you can spot mainland actors crassly standing in for “exotic natives”). We see clips of “Blue Hawaii,” “South Pacific,” “Pagan Love Song,” “Big Jim McLain” and even something called “Dinocroc Vs. Sugargator.”
“Cane Fire” is a response to indifference, a wake-up call to anyone who never knew or cared before about Hawaii’s dark historical past, the suffering of the indigenous people who live there and how the emphasis on tourism hasn’t always been a positive aspect for those that live there, to say the least. “Cane Fire” manages to be engaging and fact-filled enough to keep from feeling like a heavy-handed history lesson, but its most galvanizing scenes are painful to witness.
In addition to heartbreaking news footage of Hawaiians being arrested and removed from their land, we also witness footage of a random tourist’s cringe-inducing home video vacation footage- the obnoxious husband who hogs the spotlight and makes a variety of unfunny comments gets more insufferable and insulting as the footage cuts from one setting to another. There’s also footage of a realtor showing a home to potential clients, who speak of a potential house in paradise with entitled indifference. While the documentarian behind the camera never raises his voice, there is righteous fury in “Cane Fire.” Near the film’s end, one interviewee sums up his current situation, as well as that of what Hawaiians have endured: “There’s a lot of people, like me, who are suffering…they used us.”
With its tendency to go head-on into a rich topic, then back off into another direction altogether before returning later, “Cane Fire” isn’t messy but it sure is restless. Both personal in its chronicling of changing times, from the perspective of a white child with local relatives, and also rich with incidents taken from history through use of news and film footage, it covers a lot of ground for a mere 90-minutes.
I loved a random and entirely welcome moment where one of the interviewees suddenly announces that he was in a movie made on Kauai, runs off to find the photos and returns with evidence and his wife correcting his declaration of the film itself: “Dragonfly,” the forgotten Kevin Costner drama; we even get footage of the man performing in the film and standing around the set. It’s a touch that suggests how normalized it became for movies to show up and either utilize and/or exploit Kauai as a setting.
By the end of “Cane Fire,” there’s such a wealth of information, different subjects that the film followed and a wealth of varying perspectives (like the frustrations of an activist contrasted with the earnestness of a real estate agent), the effect is dizzying in all the right ways. “Cane Fire” is always engaging and covers a lot of ground.
Three and a Half stars (Out of Five)
“Cane Fire” played at the 2020 Denver International Film Festival and is currently showing at the 40thAnnual Hawaii International Film Festival.