This review of “Cane Fire” was first published May 20, 2022.
Several years in the making, the documentary “Cane Fire,” from longtime editor turned director Anthony Banua-Simon, sees the light of day as native Hawaiians on social media platforms are urging the public at large to stop traveling to the state at a time when resources of all kinds, from water to housing, have become alarmingly scarce or impossibly unaffordable for the working-class locals, particularly the indigenous Hawaiian population.
An indispensable watch, Banua-Simon’s first feature focuses on the island of Kauaʻi and the history of its exploitation as a colony, which endures under the guise of statehood. First desired for its fertile soil (for sugar cane and pineapple plantations that employed underpaid and overworked migrants from Asia), the island later became a sought-after Hollywood location and, eventually, a paradisiacal tourist playground for the rich.
To unspool the painful past of this landmass in the Pacific and the unsung people that made it prosperous for others’ benefit, the filmmaker latches onto a still frame of his Filipino grandfather, who migrated there in the early 20th century. The image comes from a now-lost film, “Cane Fire,” where he acted as an extra. Like many others, Banua-Simon’s grandfather Alberto and his great-uncle Henry, who appears in the film, labored in the fields for many years.
After detailing how the five major sugar companies carried out union-busting practices, and even deported those who demanded better wages and living conditions, the director takes to task Hollywood’s willing participation in creating the image of Hawaii, and specifically Kauaʻi, as a welcoming getaway for white outsiders.
Footage of “Blue Hawaii” (1961) starring Elvis Presley or “The Hawaiians” (1970) with Charlton Heston, both shot there, is interspersed to highlight the exoticism that prevailed in those cinematic depictions of the inhabitants, whether native or immigrants. Banua-Simon consistently reels his film’s many thematic threads back to the notion of existing only as “extras,” perpetually in the background of white stars or visitors. That feeling remains applicable to the way in which profit for the few gets prioritized over the well-being of permanent residents today.
One glaring example of how the white gaze sees others as interchangeable and undistinguishable occurs in a clip from 2002’s “Dragonfly,” with Kevin Costner. While locals of Asian descent were accustomed to productions casting anyone to play native Hawaiian, the creators of this drama took it a step further and cast them to play indigenous people from the Amazon rainforest in South America. Alfredo Castillo, great-uncle Henry’s best friend and a former union leader, played one of them.
Such dehumanizing disregard extends, according to Banua-Simon’s findings, to the attractions at hotels designed to preserve a false sense of authenticity. That’s the case of a “fire ceremony” performed with torches at a popular hotel every night under the pretense of being a native tradition when, in truth, it was invented by hotel management as a spectacle for their clientele. These fabricated experiences of island wonder exist at the expense of the staff who can’t afford to pay rent as more luxury developments proliferate.
Although formally “Cane Fire” doesn’t stray far from the familiar mix of interviews and archival footage, Banua-Simon’s approach showcases a singular storytelling voice, one that narrates and assembles its many moving parts with a matter-of-fact tone. Yet, in that stoicism, he guides our attention to infuriatingly indefensible examples that demonstrate how the impact of historic oppression reverberates to this day in a hyper-visible manner.
Thoroughly researched and procuring a myriad of voices — including a seemingly oblivious real estate agent who believes he deserves a place on the island as much as those who have ancestral connections there — the collection of topics acts as a crash course to understanding the injustice inherent in how the United States treats its “territories” (a euphemism for “colonies”) as it mines resources to exhaust for financial gain that never trickles down.
One can’t talk about the situation in Hawaii without thinking about Puerto Rico in the same breath, another 21st-century island colony where corporate property owners and financial loopholes have a chokehold on the economy and continue to displace the locals. Cecilia Aldarondo’s documentary “Landfall,” a similarly detailed examination of the issues afflicting Puerto Rico, could serve as a meaningful companion piece to “Cane Fire.”
With every narrative building block to support his thesis, Banua-Simon exposes the colonialist mindset of white mainlanders and foreigners that passes off displacement as progress. In the colonizer’s fantasy of vacation homes and beachfront escapades, the local population’s only purpose is to cater to them. Early on, the director’s teenage cousin, who’s just entered the workforce in the service industry, shares his instant realization that people like him, with longstanding roots in Kauaʻi, have been relegated to serve those with money.
As discouraging as the current reality stands, native Hawaiian activists are fighting back in true David vs. Goliath fashion. Adding yet another subplot to his comprehensive look at the island, Banua-Simon meets a group attempting to take back the area where the Coco Palms Resort once stood, sacred land that includes burial grounds.
In this battle to regain control of their island, a disheartening truth is that many locals do indeed believe that the predatory enterprises in power provide job security. Banua-Simon’s family friend “Uncle” Larry, a musician who’s performed at hotels in Kauaʻi for decades, for example, even testifies in favor of a developer bent on rebuilding the Coco Palms Resort.
Given the sheer volume of information in “Cane Fire,” its execution comes across as a tad inelegant and jumbled at times, but it mostly makes up for it in the impact of its arguments. “Cane Fire,” the 1933 film in which Banua-Simon’s grandfather appeared, ended with the destruction of the plantation, a revolutionary act that made the real white men in power tremble for what it could incite.
In this new “Cane Fire,” almost a century later, that spirit of defiance remains potent throughout, especially when the director creates a fiery montage with clips from the B-movie “Dinocroc vs. Supergator” to not-so-subtly illustrate the “eat the rich” motto.
“Cane Fire” opens Friday in U.S. theaters.