FILM FOR THOUGHT
Presented by the Hawai‘i Council for the Humanities
THOUGHTS: CANE FIRE
Documentary filmmakers are tasked with making the real reel. Anthony Banua-Simon’s CANE FIRE is a 95-minute “kaleidoscopic portrait” of beautiful Kauaʻi with some exposure to the current woes of this iconic Hawaiian paradise. Kauaʻi is known as “The Movie Island,” and Banua-Simon does a good job showing how the sounds and strains of SOUTH PACIFIC, BLUE HAWAII, JURASSIC PARK and other iconic cinema have made filmmakers and audiences see this island as “anywhere” that’s beautiful, exotic, and natural.
Banua-Simon’s lifting of this beautiful illusion and the selling of a laid-back “plantation” life gives a glimpse of the island’s deeper angst. No one I know of has put together this perspective of “The Garden Isle,” except perhaps the recent film, POISONING PARADISE, which unlocks the horrors of pesticide contamination on Kauaʻi. The frames, sequences, and scenes of Kauaʻi Simon assembled are evocative of survey documentaries that tend to scrape the surface, but CANE FIRE pays attention to something deeper — a Hawaiian Island paradise headed for “an island wide revolt.”
- While its stunning beauty hides the stench of an island in economic crisis, is it, perhaps, at a tipping point?
- Just how much can Kauaʻi take, and can it afford the illusion of a South Seas idyllic life as its identity when so many are suffering?
These are key questions I asked after viewing CANE FIRE.
I am from Kauaʻi with family roots going back to the early 1900s when my grandparents settled here and chose the life of gamblers — cockfighting and card players — instead of the hard labor of the sugar and pineapple plantations. Three of my documentaries explore Kauaʻi through family stories, including STRANGE LAND, which tells of my mother’s coming to Kauaʻi from the Philippines. I have lived on Kauaʻi off and on all my life (30+ years) as a vagabond filmmaker, always coming home to my family here, thus I could watch Anthony Simon’s film and relate to the stories he tells and the people he portrays: a retired uncle, remembering times past with vivid recollection; a union boss, recalling the days of hard labor on the plantations; Simon’s cousins, struggling to make ends meet. They are among the thousands who have remained on this island, while so many others have moved to California, Utah, or other parts beyond Hawai’i.
Banua-Simon, whose family left Kauaʻi when he was a young boy, lives in Seattle but often visits his cousins and stays in touch with the family here. This film is his introspective personal essay of how Kauaʻi has grown and changed through the last century. Statistics are not prominent in this film, nevertheless, it is worth re-stating and noting a few here.
- More residents than ever left Hawaiʻi last year — a record 13,817; overall, more than 60,000 Hawaiʻi residents have left since 2011, the first-year data was kept.
- Wealthy people (including billionaires) move to Kauaʻi, where median home prices climbed to $700,000 this year, while Kauaʻi’s unsheltered homeless numbers skyrocketed (Volunteers counted a total of 443 homeless people on Kauai compared to 293 the year before.)
Hawaiʻi’s biggest import has become other people’s leisure! wrote one Hawaiʻi realtor. No wonder it feels like Kauaʻi continues to have a feudal economy, begun long ago by the sugar planters in the 1800s, and Banua-Simon touches on how local residents are struggling with a service industry that pays minimum wage, stress-related meth drug issues, and Native Hawaiians being pushed off lands and properties.
Although Banua-Simon’s film is pre-COVID, it gives a glimpse of the grim realities of Kauaʻi today, but there are more stories he can tell. Among the top issues needing exposure are:
- affordable housing vs vacation rentals and time share units
- the decline of the standard of living for the working class
- the sudden hike of property taxes into higher brackets for locals as millionaires and billionaires buy up land and estates
- the growing homeless/houseless populations settling in at Kauaʻi parks and beaches.
Anthony, more stories wait for your telling.
Stephanie J. Castillo
STEPHANIE J. CASTILLO is a former Honolulu newspaper reporter and an EMMY Award winner who has made independent documentaries for local and national TV for 30 years. Her eight-hour documentary box set COCKFIGHTERS: THE INTERVIEWS explores the “sport” of rooster fighting as part of her desire to understand her grandfather. Now based in Hilo, Hawai’i, she is working on her 11th film, also to do with Kauai — The Hanapepe Massacre Mystery of 1924.
This essay has been produced as part of the 2020 FILM FOR THOUGHT Program in partnership with the Hawai‘i Council for the Humanities.