At the climax of Lois Weber’s 1934 film White Heat, now assumed lost, a Hawaiian woman betrayed by the owner of a sugar plantation sets fire to his cane fields in revenge and retribution. Exploring the gulf between the Hawaii of golden age Hollywood and its contemporary reality, director Anthony Banua-Simon’s impassioned documentary suggests that another Cane Fire is only a matter of time as the local population find themselves pushed to the margins of their own society, which has the highest cost of living in the US, owing to the ongoing effects of contemporary colonialism as wealthy non-residents price local families out of affordable housing while disrupting service provision and the local economy. 

Banua-Simon’s great-grandfather Alberto was one of many young men who came to the Hawaiian island of Kauaʻi in the 1920s as a migrant worker from the Philippines only to discover little more than exploitation and hardship. Migrant communities from China, Japan, and other areas of Asia were pitted against each other to avoid the threat of worker solidarity while Alberto was demoted to ditch digging after becoming involved with unionisation. Ironically enough, Alberto later returned to the Philippines along with the machinery from the then shuttered plantation intended to be reassembled in his home country to make of use of even cheaper labour. Banua-Simon’s quest begins as one of tracing his great-grandfather’s image through searching for footage of White Heat in which he had performed as an extra only to be confronted with the essential ironies of its misuse which echoes into the Hollywood pictures of 1950s and ‘60s presenting the island as a tropical paradise playground for mainland holidaymakers. 

In conversations with older men, Banua-Simon uncovers a series of stories similar to his great-grandfather’s of migrant workers being recruited to play the part of native people often forced to pose with spears while wearing an imagined representation of traditional dress. A discussion with entertainer Larry Rivera reveals that many of the legends he read out while performing a “traditional” torch ceremony at the famed Coco Palms hotel were in fact made up by its owner while the native population were in essence forced to perform a bastardised fabrication of their culture for oblivious tourists. 

Once a source of Hollywood glamour frequented by stars such as Elvis Presley and Bing Crosby, the Coco Palms hotel has been in a state of disuse following extensive damage during a a 1992 hurricane and has become a source of tension between local community groups who believe the land should be returned to the Hawaiian people and the developers who intended to restore it to its former “glory”. With the island’s transition from an agrarian economy based on the cultivation of sugar cane and pineapple to one dominated largely by tourism has come an uncomfortable nostalgia for old-fashioned imperialist exploitation with expansive holiday homes often marketed as “plantation-style” houses while those who continued living in the much less “elegant” housing offered to workers are at constant risk of eviction knowing that it will not be possible to find affordable accommodation anywhere on the island especially as many of them are now elderly. 

Even those who have managed to find work with the tourist resorts report similar levels of exploitation in the gradual erosion of workers’ rights fought for by men like Banua-Simon’s great-uncle Henry who stayed behind when Alberto returned to the Philippines and laments that though born and raised on Hawaii he does not feel Hawaiian. He is confused and angry that they do not teach the long-suppressed Hawaiian language in schools, nor do they teach the islands’ history or of the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom and its subsequent annexation. “Something’s wrong there” he adds in conclusion, displaying a gift for understatement. 

In an irony that seems especially cruel one of the few paths towards homeownership available to the local population lies in a scheme in which families are basically expected to physically build the house themselves during the off hours they don’t actually have because they have to work all the time. The land for the scheme is in fact owned by one of the big five sugar companies which now seems to run pretty much everything on the island even though sugar is no longer a dominant force in the local economy. The houses also closely resemble those constructed for the plantation workers, which Banua-Simon demonstrates with some well-placed stock footage, only the owners now work mainly in the service industry as waitstaff at the various resorts. Given all of these stressors, it isn’t surprising that a union official voices the opinion that another cane fire cannot be far off as the local community is pushed to breaking point in this completely unsustainable environment of contemporary colonialism. 

Cane Fire screens in US cinemas from May 20 courtesy of Cinema Guild.

Original trailer

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