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‘Cane Fire,’ a lit torch searching for Kaua’i’s truth

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Cane Fire (2020), directed by Anthony Banua-Simon.

The image of Hawaii you probably have in your head is inextricably linked to the cultural production machine of film and tourism. Parallel to this are the generations long story of Indigenous peoples and labor organizing on the island. This is the image that Anthony Banua-Simon zooms in on in Cane Fire, a documentary that connects the dots through tenuous histories of exploitation and resistance on the island of Kaua’i. 

Cane Fire begins with an introduction to a 1933 film of the same name — also known as White Heat. The film was shot on Kaua’i and believed to be lost. Included in the film is the only known footage of Banua-Simon’s great grandfather, who was both an extra and a worker on the actual plantation where the film took place. From here, Banua-Simon takes us on a journey that spans four generations where land, work, and autonomy are stolen from family and a community fighting to stay home.

The documentary intercuts interviews of Kaua’i’s residents with archival footage, film footage, commercials, and vlogs throughout the entire runtime. It feels as if Banua-Simon is combating a dominant narrative with this constant splicing. Elvis Presley and Coco Palms Resort are critically examined as complicit to an ongoing system of erasure and co-opting Hawaiian identity. Meanwhile, Banua-Simon’s great uncle (Henry Bermoy) retells the story of labor organization on the island against the Big Five sugar barons and how collective bargaining has disappeared along with their history.

Still from Cane Fire.

Oppression transformed itself on Kaua’i. Throughout the 20th century, the outsized and endless profits of sugar plantations gave way to a film industry ready to take advantage of promoting tourism adjacent to anti-communist messaging. Little credit was given to organizers such as Pablo Manlapit and Alfredo Castillo who were instrumental in concerted efforts against corporate interests. In the wake of these changes, generations are caught in the wake of an environment that pushes them to the margins with little hope to adapt to service labor or to buy or reclaim stolen land.

We are introduced to so many intersecting topics that the film doesn’t waste any time contemplating for too long. Interview subjects of varying ages know deeply that they and the island have been consistently harmed by bad actors from the film industry, real estate, and the US military. Where does justice occur without accountability? Where are the unilateral and searing admissions of guilt? All the while, it feels as if Banua-Simon is trying to make sense of the long disappeared Cane Fire and his own relationship with film that was a means to better connect with Kaua’i. Atonement cannot be found.

Still from Cane Fire.

Seeds of hope are buried deep. Ke’ala, an activist part of reclaiming the land of the destitute Coco Palms Resort, speaks about film in terms of imagining outside of Hollywood. “Elvis Presley coming on a canoe — that’s not real.” Pamela Green, the Division Director of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, foretells that union strength will go “full circle.” The systematic oppression has left Kaua’i’s protectors continually asserting their truth: people that live here know what’s best.

“They never teach us about Hawaii in school,” says great uncle Henry. It is a reminder that there is a vested interest to deny Kaua’i of its own truth. It is a denial we casually digest on a global scale. Do we know where we come from? Towards the end of the film, Banua-Simon cuts a montage of film clips where white, rich tourists and their various industries get destroyed. “No sense of moderation,” says a man in the final clip. It’s an emblem of Cane Fire’s spirited search for truth without catharsis and it’s one story trying to make sense of Kaua’i’s many.

Score: 4 / 5

Film pages: Filmmaker website |   | IMDb

Cane Fire was covered as part of the 2021 San Diego Asian Film Festival’s Spring Showcase.

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