Anthony Banua-Simon started devouring Hollywood movies set in Kauaʻi, Hawaiʻi, as a child in the 1990s, in part to stay connected to the island where his mother’s family lives. According to family lore, his great-grandfather Albert, a Filipino immigrant and labor organizer who worked in Kauaʻi’s sugarcane fields before going back to the Philippines, appeared as an extra in the lost film “Cane Fire,” also known as “ White Heat,” which was shot on a Kauaʻi plantation in the early 1930s.
Banua-Simon tried to find that 1934 film and couldn’t. Instead, he recovered the stories of family members and other local people, who often exist in the background of Hollywood productions. His 90-minute documentary, also titled “Cane Fire,” takes on more than a century of exploitation and displacement of the working class and Native Hawaiians and examines the sensational, sentimental, sometimes cringe-inducing Hollywood portrayals of the island as Kauaʻi transitioned to a tourism-based economy catering to wealthy mainlanders.
In the process, Banua-Simon’s film highlights the experiences of local people trying to survive on an increasingly unaffordable island, including his former activist aunt, who now works at an upscale hotel; his cousins, who are struggling to stay afloat in low-paying service jobs; and a group of Native Hawaiian advocates working to reclaim their history, culture and land.
The Queens, New York-based filmmaker spoke to HuffPost to tell us more about “Cane Fire,” which will premiere online at the Hot Docs 2020 Festival on Thursday. Watch a trailer here.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
So I was curious about how the project evolved. In the documentary, you talk about looking for a copy of the original “Cane Fire.” What direction did you take when you could not find a copy?
I think secretly I knew I never was gonna find a copy. But it was a way to start a conversation. It was a lost film [last screened in the 1960s], and you could get into other things about people’s relationship to the films shot on the island. But it was a good entry point because, pretty much, that’s Hollywood’s first introduction on Kauaʻi, shooting this production that features the plantation workers as extras. They were on the sugar plantation that she [“Cane Fire” director Lois Weber] was filming on, and my great grandfather may or may not be in the film. We don’t have definitive proof. We have some family members that we think were involved in the production, but you never know.
Not only were several members of your family involved in Hollywood productions on the island but so were other people, like [former union leader] Alfredo Castillo, who were serious labor activists and just appear as extras in a Hollywood film. I thought that was really interesting. Did you know going into it that they had been involved?
Everyone had a story because that was something that, for tourists and outsiders, would be an appealing story to share. With Alfredo, it was so striking because it’s not his character. It’s something that you would not imagine ever, and my Great-Uncle Henry looks just as surprised as I do when Alfredo shares that, the experience of being an extra in a Kevin Costner film where he’s supposed to be, I guess, part of an Indigenous tribe in Peru in the early 2000s.
And yeah, it seemed like everyone had a story that they were kind of briefly involved [in a Hollywood film]. The man [we hear] at the very beginning [of the documentary], whose name is Danny, was a little boy in the wedding scene of “Blue Hawaii” with Elvis Presley. [It’s not in the documentary, but] I actually brought him on to the Coco Palms Hotel tour because that’s a good context of the “golden era.” The focus of a lot of films of that era encircled the Coco Palms Hotel, and I took him on the tour of the grounds, which were abandoned at that point, and everyone that was there was really into Elvis Presley ― that’s why they were there. And he shared that he was an extra in “Blue Hawaii” in the final wedding scene, and everyone just lost it.
They swarmed him afterward and got all these photos with him and they made sure that everyone got a picture with him. They had no idea of the actual legacy of that space being pretty much the most sacred place in Hawaiʻi for Native Hawaiians, that their kings and queens actually lived here ― there were sacred burials on the grounds. To them, [Elvis] was like the end-all.
I thought that scene where Alfredo takes out the photo of him wearing that Amazonian native costume, that is a tiny moment, but it kind of really says it all about how Hollywood has portrayed local people. But the other thing I noticed was that he didn’t seem bothered by it. He wasn’t like, “Oh, this is so racist.”
Right. Yeah, it’s sad, but I think there’s just not that expectation, at this point, of their lives and their experiences having been represented. It’s just like Alfredo at his age doesn’t even think to ask or expect it at this point. It’s really unfortunate.
One thing I said I wanted to talk to you about was how activism has evolved on Kauaʻi. Definitely Alfredo is one of the more old-school labor activists, your great-grandfather is super old school, and now talking about the people who were occupying Coco Palms Resort, how would you say it’s evolved over this century-plus on the island?
I think with my family, that thread being labor activism, negotiating with management and strikes and all that, we wanted to connect the working class with the Native Hawaiian population, who might approach it differently. [There’s] more of a connection to the land and self-sufficiency. And how the two are interconnected is something that I was interested in, how it’s kind of this unanswered question of what the overlap is. It seems like they have common goals, but they’re often separate conversations.
I think what I was drawn to with the Native Hawaiian activism, particularly with this group I was following at the Coco Palms property, there’s more a demonstration that this is a stretch of land, this is how the districts were originally divided, from the mountain to the ocean, and just — I wouldn’t say occupying — restoring this land, living on it, growing taro, showing this is how Hawaiians used to live, how Hawaiʻi could be more self-sufficient. That was interesting to me.
There are several Hawaiian sovereignty movements and different approaches and theories on what the best way to go is. I didn’t want to get into that so much because people have different opinions and we didn’t want to get too focused on that. We wanted to say that the core of this argument or approach — there’s something to it, and it contributes to this conversation. That was interesting to us.
I had to ask you about the gator monster creature that appears in the documentary. I know that’s from another film [“Dinocroc vs. Supergator”] — I didn’t know that initially. I thought it was something that you had created. But I thought it was interesting because you are interviewing a couple of people who know the history of exploitation of Hawaiʻi, but they’re also benefiting from it. You show restraint in not editorializing about that, but there’s also the gator that comes in and eats the tourists. I was curious about that choice.
That’s funny you asked about that. You’re gonna have to cut this down because I could go on and on about that, about the gator itself. I don’t know if you know the filmmaker Roger Corman ― he’s known as the king of B-movies, and he would make exploitation films that follow the trends of the time, but he also made films of his own that are actually really interesting and subversive in their own way.
But the very first films that he shot were on Kauaʻi, so it’s a funny full-circle thing. These recent films that he’s been producing shot on Kauaʻi are kind of coasting off of the biotech companies in Kauaʻi, and the monster is this uncontrollable force that they’re messing with. It’s basically a B-movie version of “Jurassic Park.”
And I really acknowledge studio film being this imperfect medium. There’s like a dual force ― there’s two different [types of] films that can attack a subject, address a subject in an imperfect way. One that’s tastefully done and doesn’t quite hit the mark, and then there’s the B-movie. It’s just like the raw core of anxiety, the exploitation, the sex and violence and racism, that’s the legacy of the B-movie. And they both serve their purposes. And I wanted to almost honor B-movies by having this climax of really hitting this visceral core of what’s going on at a certain level, the mutant crocodile that attacks people over the island, that’s let loose.
What do you make of all of these Hollywood portrayals of Kauaʻi?
Kauaʻi has been used by Hollywood in a variety of different ways. Its particular draw in comparison to the other islands for location shooting has to do with its variety of climates in a small radius. But it really started in the ’30s as a partnership with the “Big 5” sugar companies as PR, after the rest of the world started hearing about the labor atrocities committed by the companies. It’s what led to the South Seas fantasy genre, where Asian Hawaiian and Native Hawaiian residents were portrayed interchangeably.
Gradually, as the U.S. government gained more of a military presence on Hawaiʻi, they took over and created the Hawaiian tourism bureau and used Hollywood films to further their case for statehood, by pushing pro-military and tourism productions.
For a variety of reasons, we’re able to see the seams in these dated depictions, and the ideology is laid bare. But I wanted to show the motive of asserting U.S. dominance is still there today. And that even with user-produced media, people are parroting past tropes, often unwittingly. With this latest wave of luxury real estate, where wealthy people own property on Kauaʻi and are officially considered residents but only visit a few months out of the year, it makes sense that they would pull from the plantation era as their reference point. That they see themselves as living among the residents of Kauaʻi, not like those “tacky tourists.”
I enjoyed all the clips from the different Hollywood films. Do you think the portrayals have become more nuanced and improved over time?
I think it’s hard to tell. I think 30 years from now it’ll be easier to see the seams of certain ideologies, but they might seem invisible now. Starting in the ’80s and the ’90s, issues that were happening in Kauaʻi and Hawaiʻi, in general, were kind of pushed more into the background, I think. It is more nuanced, but not bringing them up is its own way of silencing them or not acknowledging them.
I think of “The Descendants,” for example. That’s like a film that a lot of people say that this is the one that totally gets it right, and I remember liking it when it first came out. But the more I thought about it, there’s this weird edge, there’s something that doesn’t quite work, that feels like it’s trying to be tasteful and isn’t quite hitting the mark. But it’s more sophisticated and it’s harder to pick apart. I think with films in the ’50s, when you have John Wayne punching communist labor leaders, that’s a lot less subtle. [laughs]
I think some of these older films, it might be easier to pull things from them because they say kind of outrageous, self-contained statements. But it is worth noting that a lot of them were made with this kind of subtlety that I guess would flatter the liberal audience at the time to say “things are complicated,” but would always come out on the side of capital or management in the end.
An example is the movie “Jungle Heat,” where you have the tensions of the plantation, you have this labor leader, the head of the plantation is seen as this corrupt person. The movie is set right before Pearl Harbor, and the whole message of the film was that we were focusing on labor rights and it was all self-squabbling and we took our eye off the prize — the bigger issue was the invasion of the Japanese. So it’s a lesson learned that we should have all just united against the Japanese and put all those things aside. So it really flatters one side for a bit, only to kind of take it away at the very end.
You’re bringing all this history and commentary about Hollywood, but you’re also telling a story about your family. There are a lot of things that are kind of present with their absence, like your Auntie Sandi. You tell a little bit of her story, but she didn’t want to participate in the film [because of her job at an upscale hotel]. How did you balance between getting the stories out there but also respecting the privacy of your family?
Yeah, definitely starting with my Great-Uncle Henry, he had all these great stories and it was something that I would branch off from. And he lived these amazing chapters and these kind of self-encapsulated stories. I wanted to capture the rest of my family’s experience, but kind of acknowledge and respect their different places in their lives. They’re still living out their stories, they’re still figuring it out ― especially when I’m talking about my cousins, who are my age and younger, they don’t have an answer. They’re busy actively living their lives, and how they see the struggle is more day to day.
The same thing with my auntie, just being honest with where they’re at. The conflict itself, that she wouldn’t want to be in the film, and respecting that — it is interesting that she has this past of Native Hawaiian activism and still had to, on a material level, [live on this island and provide for her kids]. I thought the more honest I am about what’s going on in the background, the easier it is to actually show something that is kind of illuminating in itself and it’s worth mentioning. So I hope it came off that way.
My cousin Micah passed away about a month ago from a fishing accident. He was in the film briefly and mostly accompanied his younger brother River, who I interview. He didn’t want to be directly involved other than me following him and River fishing, and so I wanted to give him his space while acknowledging the difficulties he was going through in an understanding light. It’s still shocking to me and it’s a hard part of the film to watch.
What I got from it is it’s really impossible not to live with this conflict because of how Kauaʻi was exploited. There are some people who perhaps would not be sympathetic characters that you interview, like the real estate guy. But I’ve been a tourist in Kauaʻi, I’ve been part of that, too.
Yeah, I wanted to be really honest about my place. I have family [in Hawaiʻi], but I didn’t grow up there, I’m an outsider. But if I’m clear about where I’m coming from, it helps people understand the observations and it makes it an easier conversation. So that someone who has a different relationship — or Elvis doesn’t have a draw to them or they don’t respond to these media portrayals the way I do — can comment and build from these ideas on their own.
Being upfront about this is what my interest is and this is what it led to ― it was kind of an education. Being honest that exotica music is fun and it’s kitschy, it’s catchy, but it’s an entry point — we can enjoy this and acknowledge its aesthetic value, but also teach what’s going on in the background at the same time.
I wanted to use the sources, but not in a way that gave them too much power. It would almost be more ominous to reference Elvis without showing him. Just show how goofy and silly it all was and put it into perspective as well.
What kind of message do you hope people will take away from your film?
I came from a very particular point of view to create this, and I’d love to see someone with a different point of view respond or refute even. [laughs] I would want to encourage people that if they want to make a film that is critiquing or commenting on mass media, to not be intimidated, to just use whatever means to get your point across regardless of copyright or if it’s perceived as less marketable. I want to see more of that, I think, more fearlessness that you can do it.
My producer, Mike Vass, and I said if we’re gonna be critiquing Hollywood films, then we’re gonna use the films; we’re not going to be immediately caught up in copyright. If it works, we’re gonna use it and deal with that later.
Because of that, every step of the way, grants and foundations were like: How are we gonna pay for this? How can we make something that we know is gonna come out the other end with something we can use? So we were basically told no, no, no, every step of the way. So I just want to encourage people to not be intimidated by that.
What are a few of your favorite films about Hawaiʻi or Kauaʻi, or set there?
My favorite film lately was shot on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi ― it’s called “August at Akiko’s.” The filmmaker, Christopher Makoto Yogi, made this really beautiful, lyrical film that kind of felt like the island pace. And it’s kind of a ghost story of a man who comes back to investigate his grandparents and he’s staying at this Buddhist retreat with this Japanese woman, Akiko.
And the pace of it, it captures the breeze, all the noises, the soundscape that you associate with Hawaiʻi. What I appreciate is that it addresses the issues that Hawaiʻi faces in a subtle way, but it kind of makes the appeal of Hawaiʻi self-apparent. It doesn’t have to hit a particular issue head-on, it kind of envelops you. I think it’s great.
And I actually have a film to recommend [“Like a Mighty Wave”] that is more of an advocacy short with a condensed layout of what’s happening at Mauna Kea that I think would be great for people to watch. It’s by a Hawaiian filmmaker in Honolulu. The filmmaker is involved with the Honolulu DSA, and the DSA [Democratic Socialists of America] has been really great with their statement of solidarity with the working class, but also Indigenous rights, and are really articulate at bringing those together.