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Searing Doc examines the exploitation of Hawaii by developers, corporations and Hollywood

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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 urge the general public to stop traveling to the state at a a time when resources of all kinds, from water to housing, have become extremely scarce or incredibly unaffordable for the local working class, especially the native Hawaiian population.

A must-watch, Banua-Simons’ feature debut focuses on the island of Kauai and the history of its exploitation as a colony, which endures under the guise of a state. First coveted for its fertile soil (for the sugar cane and pineapple plantations that employed underpaid and overworked Asian migrants), the island then became a Hollywood hotspot and eventually a land paradise tourist game for the rich.

To unfold the painful past of this Pacific landmass and the little-known peoples who made it prosperous for the benefit of others, the filmmaker clings to a still image of his Filipino grandfather, who emigrated there at the beginning of the 20and century. The image is from a now lost film, Cane Fire, where he starred as an extra. Like many others, Banua-Simons’ grandfather, Alberto, and his great-uncle Henry, who appears in the film, worked in the fields for many years.

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After detailing how the Big Five sugar companies carried out union busting and even kicked out those who demanded better wages and living conditions, the director takes to task Hollywood’s voluntary participation in creating Hawaii’s image, and more specifically from Kauai, as a welcoming getaway. for white foreigners.

Images from Blue Hawaii (1961) with Elvis Presley or The Hawaiians (1970) with Charlton Heston, both filmed there, intertwine to underline the exoticism that prevails in these cinematic representations of the inhabitants, whether they are native or immigrants. Banua-Simon constantly leads his film’s many thematic threads back to the notion of existing solely as extras, perpetually in the background of white stars or visitors. This sentiment remains applicable to the way profit for the few today takes precedence over the well-being of permanent residents.

A glaring example of how white gaze sees others as interchangeable and indistinguishable occurs in a 2002 clip from Dragonfly, starring Kevin Costner. While locals of Asian descent were used to anyone playing the role of a native Hawaiian, the creators of this drama went a step further and cast them to play the natives of the Amazon rainforest in South America. . Alfredo Castillo, Great Uncle Henry’s best friend and former union leader, played one of them.

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Such dehumanizing disregard extends, according to Banua-Simons, to hotel attractions designed to preserve a false sense of authenticity. This is the case of a fire ceremony performed with torches in a popular hotel every night on the pretext of being an indigenous tradition when in reality it was invented by the hotel management as a spectacle for its customers. These fabricated experiences of island wonder exist at the expense of staff who cannot afford to pay rent as more luxury developments proliferate.

Although formally Cane Fire does not stray from the familiar mix of interviews and archival footage, Banua-Simons’ approach features a singular storytelling voice, a voice that narrates and stitches together its many moving parts with a your down to earth. Yet in this stoicism, he draws our attention to maddening and indefensible examples that demonstrate how the impact of historical oppression reverberates to this day in hyper-visible ways.

Thoroughly researching and securing a myriad of voices – including a seemingly oblivious real estate agent who believes he deserves a place on the island as much as those with ancestral ties there – the subject collection acts as a A crash course in understanding the injustice inherent in how the United States treats its “territories” (a euphemism for “colonies”) as it exploits depleting resources for financial gain that never trickles down.

The star of

You can’t talk about the situation in Hawaii without thinking of Puerto Rico in the same breath, another 21st-century island colony where corporate owners and financial loopholes stifle the economy and continue to displace residents. Cecilia Aldarondos’ documentary Landfall, an equally detailed examination of the problems plaguing Puerto Rico, could serve as a meaningful complement to Cane Fire.

With every narrative building block to support his thesis, Banua-Simon exposes the colonialist mentality of white mainlanders and foreigners that passes displacement off as progress. In the colonizer’s fantasy of vacation homes and seaside getaways, the local people have no purpose but to look after them. Early on, the manager’s teenage cousin, just entering the service industry workforce, shares his instant realization that people like him, with long-standing Kauai roots, have been relegated to serve those who have money.

As daunting as the current reality is, Native Hawaiian activists are fighting back like David against Goliath. Adding another subplot to his comprehensive look at the island, Banua-Simon encounters a group trying to take over the area where the Coco Palms Resort once stood, hallowed ground that includes graveyards.

In this battle to regain control of their island, a disheartening truth is that many locals do indeed believe that the predatory corporations in power provide job security. Banua-Simon’s family friend “Uncle” Larry, a musician who performed at Kauai hotels for decades, for example, is even testifying in favor of a developer intent on rebuilding the Coco Palms Resort.

Given the sheer volume of information in Cane Fire, its execution comes across as a bit inelegant and confusing at times, but it mostly makes up for it in the impact of its arguments. Cane Fire, the 1933 film in which Banua-Simons’ grandfather appeared, ended with the destruction of the plantation, a revolutionary act that made real white men in power tremble for what they could incite.

In this new Cane Fire, nearly a century later, that spirit of defiance remains strong throughout, especially when the director creates a fiery montage with clips from the B-movie Dinocroc vs. Supergator to illustrate the not-so-subtle way of motto eat the rich.

“Cane Fire” opens in US theaters May 20.

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