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In Anthony Banua-Simon’s Cane Fire, Hawaiians Are No Longer the Extras

For Golden Age Hollywood, Kaua’i became synonymous with paradise. But Anthony Banua-Simon’s new documentary Cane Fire traces the reality of life on the island, from domination by sugar companies to its transformation into a low-wage service economy.

Still from Cane Fire.

In Blue Hawaii (1961), Chadwick Gates, played by Elvis Presley, returns from the army to Hawaii, where his dad runs the Great Southern Hawaiian Fruit Company. Instead of taking over the family business as his father wants, Chad chooses to work as a tour guide. Eventually, Chad and his parents resolve their differences: he and his girlfriend Maile Duval, played by Joan Blackman, will start their own tourist agency, called Gates of Hawaii, and offer services to the Great Southern Hawaiian Fruit Company’s salesmen. The movie ends with Chad and Maile’s wedding, in which native Hawaiians provide backup vocals to Chad’s serenade, and paddle the happy couple through the island’s beautiful water on canoes.

The movie was filmed in Kaua’i, and it’s not the only film set there — over a hundred Hollywood productions have been shot on the island, with Kaua’i locals often appearing on screen as extras. In Cane Fire, his debut full-length film, Anthony Banua-Simon combines footage from these movies, painfully corny Kaua’i promotional materials, and original interviews to trace the island’s transformation from a plantation economy to a tourism boomtown.

Trouble in Paradise

Four generations of Banua-Simon’s family were employed by Alexander & Baldwin, one of the Big Five sugar and pineapple companies that long controlled Kaua’i’s economy, and Cane Fire takes us through the labor conflicts that preceded the island’s star turn.

Family legend has it that Banua-Simon’s great-grandfather Albert, a Filipino immigrant and labor organizer, was an extra in Lois Weber’s lost film from 1934, Cane Fire, also known as White Heat. The movie ran into trouble with the censors for its climax, in which a plantation worker rebels against the company by setting an out-of-control fire, and was never released.

From the start, the Big Five and Kaua’i locals clashed, as plantations redirected the island’s water to flow into the cane fields. In 1893, the companies, with the US Navy’s help, overthrew the Kingdom of Hawai’i and installed their own provisional government. The Hawai’ian language was soon banned from schools and the government.

The companies began importing labor from China, Japan, and the Philippines, pitting populations against each other and running segregated labor camps to keep the workers disorganized. It worked for a while, but by the 1920s, Kaua’i’s plantation workers were organizing. In 1924, a Filipino-led strike of sugar workers resulted in the Hanapēpē Massacre, during which sixteen strikers and four policemen were killed.

By the 1930s, the sugar industry was facing widespread criticism for its labor practices. Rather than accede to workers’ demands, the Big Five went on a public-relations offensive, enlisting Hollywood to help. Kaua’i became the backdrop for Golden Age Hollywood, and a fantasy destination for those with the money to travel.

The next decade saw the island’s first large-scale unionization drive, led by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). Red-baiting abounded. In Big Jim McLain (1952), John Wayne stars as a House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) member sent to investigate Hawai’i. At one point, a character tells him that while she was once on the Left, she realized that communism “is a vast conspiracy to enslave the common man.”

Through Banua-Simon’s great-uncle Henry Bermoy, who grew up in a segregated labor camp, the director gains access to this era of labor strife. Bermoy introduces Banua-Simon to Alfredo Castillo, the ILWU division director during Kauaui’s sugar years. Castillo, who worked at McBryde Sugar, the same company that was the cause of the Hanapēpē Massacre, recounts demanding the companies give workers land during the 1950s. He was also, we later find out, an extra in Dragonfly (2002), starring Kevin Costner.

Despite Castillo and his comrades’ best efforts, by the 1980s the island had transitioned to a tourism economy, replacing union jobs with the low pay and poor benefits of service work. The Big Five moved their operations overseas in search of cheaper labor. With the influx of tourists and transplants — half of the island’s homes are owned by nonpermanent residents, serving as either second homes or investment vehicles — came a massive housing crisis.

Cane Fire follows Kaua’i residents as they struggle over land and housing, wages and benefits. Banua-Simon interviews his cousin who works as a groundskeeper at the Kukui’ula club, a 1,000-acre luxury development on the island. He follows activists occupying the Coco Palms, where much of Blue Hawaii was set.

We meet the perfectly-named Chad Deal, president of Kaua’i’s board of realtors, who, taking a break from showing potential home buyers luxury properties, deflects blame for the island’s housing crisis by pointing out that he’s not the one who makes the laws. A regional official from a much-weakened ILWU prophecies that while she doesn’t know when the next uprisings will take place, she suspects the island’s history of organized resistance is far from over. Cane Fire suggests she’s right.