When Hawaii became a state in 1959, Americans held celebrations to welcome it to the Union. The island nation became a romantic, exotic destination for the Lower 48, a vision re-enforced by films like Blue Hawaii and South Pacific. But the Hollywood myth often clashes with the reality of island life.
Cane Fire continues many of the themes that documentarian Anthony Banua-Simon tackled in 2013 with his short, "Third Shift": Labor organization, immigration, imperialism, and the cane sugar industry. However, there's an added, personal twist: his great grandfather, Albert Banua, was one of the union organizers who helped fight for better working conditions, but who also became a point of contact for the film industry when it descended on the islands. What Banua-Simon argues is that he never really switched bosses, and that the five big sugar companies that ran Hawaii as a private fiefdom in the nineteenth century still dominate the economy, politics, and everyday life, just through new front companies.
Scratch the surface of the island idyll, Banua-Simon successfully argues, and a bleaker reality is revealed: untenable inequality, as property values scream ever-upwards, and the working class of Hawaii (mostly indigenous, or third- or fourth generation migrants from the Philippines) find themselves pushed out by the haoles, the (mostly white) immigrants arriving with stacks of cash looking for a second or third or fourth home.
Yet Banua-Simon plants so many trees in Cane Fire that it's impossible to see the forest - which is burning to the ground. Cringeworthy commercials, and a combination of neo-hippies and spoiled technocrats, make it immediately obvious how Hawaii has been turned into a tourist playground, and there is a meaningful story to be told about post-colonial corporate domination of the island. In the midst of this, there is also the story of Banua-Simon and Bermoy, and Banua-Simon's great-grandfather, who appeared in a now-missing movie also titled Cane Fire. But Banua-Simon, frustratingly, keeps this as more of a list of somewhat-connected events and sins, and seems to expect that audience's shared fury to connect the dots.
Yet he makes the same conflations that Golden Age Hollywood did, romanticizing a mythical Hawaii, and stuffing everyone who isn't haole into the same group. His central thesis, about how movies shaped an image of the kingdom turned state, would make a film by itself. His examination of island union politics, and the fight against the corporations, would make a film. A discussion about who gets to call somewhere home, that would make a film. Even just a reframing of Hawaiian history from outside of the American colonial experience, absolutely a worthwhile watch. Just the argument about the fate of the Coco Palms Resort, famous from dozens of films and now the center of a fight between developers and native Hawaiian activists, is enough to make a documentary. By trying to be all of these things, Cane Fire never quite ends up anything.
Cane Fire is available as part of Austin Asian American Film Festival's virtual programming June 4-8.
Austin Asian American Film Festival runs June 4-20. Tickets and infor at aaafilmfest.org.
This review has been corrected to indicate the relationship between Banua-Simon and Albert Banua.
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