Hawaiian History and Hypergentrification: Anthony Banua-Simon on Cane Fire
Anthony Banua-Simon’s nonfiction feature debut, Cane Fire, is a personal family history, historical explainer of sugar production, ode to union organizing and expose of a Hawaiian island’s mistreatment of its native people. Each of these elements are connected. Focusing on the island of Kaua’i, one of the most photographed areas of land in countless Hollywood productions, Cane Fire derives its title from a (now lost) 1934 film directed by Lois Weber, in which Banua-Simon’s great-grandfather was an extra. Banua-Simon uses this personal trivia as a way to dive into the egregious ways the island (and its people) have been depicted on-screen, whether that be as passive natives relegated to the background, savages or, worst of all, communists.
Has the island’s whitewashed movie history impacted how the general public views its citizens today? Sugar plantations and pineapple canneries employed and then displaced many in the area’s underserved community—what does the future hold for an island that continues to cater to the ultra-wealthy non-natives looking to catch a quick buck? And what parallels can be made to the gentrification of other American cities that outprice those whom had previously lived there longest? Cane Fire asks these questions in different forms and, while it doesn’t have all of the answers (the story is still very much ongoing), provides a copious amount of food for thought.
As Cane Fire continues its theatrical expansion in the coming weeks, I caught up with Banua-Simon (one of last year’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film) to discuss his interest in the subject matter, how its issues are linked to his current home of New York City and how he sorted through endless archival materials to note the direct parallels to the present.
Filmmaker: Before we discuss your feature debut, I wanted to briefly ask about your short documentary, Third Shift, which shares several striking thematic connections to Cane Fire. How did that project get off the ground?
Banua-Simon: I directed Third Shift while taking part in a year-long residency at UnionDocs [a nonprofit center for documentary art]. The film was made as part of UnionDocs’ expansive Living Los Sures project, a 60-artist collaboration that looked at a two-mile radius of a neighborhood on the south side of Williamsburg once known as Los Sures. I had always been interested in the neighborhood’s Domino Sugar Refinery, knowing it only as a huge brick, cavernous space that closed down in 2006. I would occasionally visit the space, partaking in a kind of urban exploration, not having any context for the building itself. I would sneak around, admire the giant machinery once used for sugar refining and get stuck in molasses that had been there since the refinery’s closure.
While at UnionDocs, I wanted to learn more about the refinery’s history, so I visited the Los Sures Senior Center and met Frank, who you see in the film [previously a worker at the refinery]. Frank told me, “You should also talk to my friend Johnny. He runs the community garden over there and is probably there now.” Lo and behold, as we walked over to the garden on a very cold February day, Johnny was huddled next to a heater in the back of the garden shed. We began having very casual conversations with Frank and Johnny, two former workers at the refinery who had worked there all the way up until the very end, when it closed down. They were both involved in what was, I believe, if not the longest, then one of the longest labor strikes in New York’s history (almost two years, from 1998-2000). The strike occurred as a result of refinery workers fighting to hold onto the benefits that they had had, rather than bargaining for something additional. Nonetheless, the refinery closed down shortly thereafter.
This whole stretch of neighborhood in Williamsburg, previously the site of industrial work, flipped into luxury real estate overnight. It was a form of hyper-gentrification, as areas previously zoned as industrial were quickly rezoned as residential, and it severely impacted the neighborhood. When I first met Frank and Johnny, they were still living only a few blocks from the building, the place where they used to work every day, and it was interesting bringing them both back to the refinery [for the documentary]. They both had very different associations with the space. Frank had nostalgia for the building; Johnny was more like, “Eh, whatever. I worked there and now I’ve moved on.” I wanted to honor each of their perspectives in the film, andwhile shooting it that I also researched the process of sugar refining, i.e. where does the sugar come from and where is it extracted? In the case of the Domino Sugar Refinery, the raw sugar was crushed and brought over from the Caribbean, then refined in Brooklyn.
I knew vaguely how my family was connected [to the sugar industry], but it never made sense how one side of my family (the side from Puerto Rico) eventually relocated to Hawaii. I eventually learned that my great-great-grandmother had been working in the sugar fields in Puerto Rico [in the late 19th century], extracting sugar to be sent over to the states and Domino Sugar. One day, a hurricane knocked out the plantation she had been working on, and that prompted the sugar barons of the world (who coordinated how labor was imported back then) to orchestrate the bringing over of her (and her baby daughter, my great-grandmother) from Puerto Rico to Hawaii in 1901 to work [on Hawaiian sugar plantations]. A further irony is that the first U.S.-instated civilian governor of Puerto Rico after annexation, Charles Herbert Allen, would later become the president of the American Sugar Refining Company [now known as Domino Sugar] in the 1910s.
On the the other side of my family was my great-grandfather, Alberto, who had immigrated from the Philippines to work at a pineapple cannery adjacent to a sugar plantation owned by the same company. By the time I visited the island as a child, there was only one remaining sugar mill in operation and I noticed many abandoned buildings and relics. It wasn’t until I was researching the Domino Sugar Refinery in Williamsburg that everything clicked, and I wanted to know more about my family’s experiences in Hawaii. It all began with a simple curiosity about that part of Hawaii’s history right after I finished making Third Shift. I just grabbed a camera and visited my great-uncle Henry [in Kaua’i]. He was a good tour guide, as he had lived through each of these particular phases in Hawaii’s history—growing up on the pineapple plantation, working as a truck driver for the sugar industry, getting involved in the union, and working as a crew member on Hollywood productions that set up on the island. As I would hang out with him, he would say, “If you have any questions, I can help you, and I’ll point you in the right direction if I can’t.” That was my starting point, eventually growing more complicated as my research branched out.
There is a parallel between Kaua’i and Brooklyn, with further details and complications becoming apparent once [I learned] how land ownership is viewed in Hawaii, specifically for Native Hawaiians. I was seeing parallels between the two places, one being that my cousins (who were my age) in Hawaii were being rapidly displaced during the rise in Hawaiian luxury real estate and a huge increase in land speculation was happening in Brooklyn too. I realized that I was having the same conversations with people in New York that I had had with my cousins in Hawaii, and that’s how the idea for Cane Fire originated.
Filmmaker: Outside of a few family visits, much of your familiarity with Kaua’i came from films shot on the island. Given that your documentary’s title is a reference to one such film, I was curious of your other cinematic memories with the island in your youth. Was the island being used as a filming site for Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park a major attraction for you? At what point did you become aware of Lois Weber’s film, White Heat (alternately titled as Cane Fire)?
Banua-Simon: I grew up mesmerized by old Hollywood films, watching them on AMC with my mom and grandparents. Films [shot on Kaua’i] became a cultural reference for me, someone who felt a bit like an outsider to my cousins who lived on the island. As a kid I was so excited that Jurassic Park had been filmed there, but it wasn’t as relevant [to the island itself] as I may have thought. As an outsider, I realized that films shot on the island felt like they were made to be viewed by people who didn’t grow up in Hawaii. An interesting inverse of my film is the essay film by Chris[topher Makoto] Yogi, Occasionally, I Saw Glimpses of Hawai‘i. His film is about his growing up in Hawaii and viewing films that were made and projected to the continent and what they meant to him. I recommend it.
With Cane Fire, I wanted to convey the excitement I felt watching these old films while also interrogating and questioning their power and what they were saying [about the island]. The residents have a conflicted nostalgia about films that were shot there, with some of their associations being good and others negative and completely discarded. But if you look at old movie books, Lois Weber’s White Heat/Cane Fire is cited often, and when I read about it, I thought the idea of searching for this lost film would be a good starting point. From there, the people I spoke with began gathering more information about where specifically the film was shot and the conditions the production was filmed under (on the Waimea Plantation, adjacent to where my great-grandfather worked). The shoot was very spread out as, during production, they were filming pickup shoots all over the island—workers in the fields or, like when you see a cane fire in her film, real fires that were part of the work involved in the production of sugar. As I searched for leads on this lost film, my documentary began to mirror a detective story, but eventually the finding of the film became less important as my story developed. The background of how White Heat/Cane Fire was made became a device to show, “Here are these two stories occurring simultaneously: my great-grandfather’s arrival to the island and the arrival of this Hollywood production.”
Filmmaker: Knowing your appreciation for archival material, were you creating a kind of “Kaua’i film library” that you could always go back and reference to draw parallels to the present day? Some of the clips you include complement the present day footage and others humorously contrast it.
Banua-Simon: It was a recreation of that earlier experience I mentioned, of “here’s the image [of this island] that’s been projected for many years, contrasted with the actual lived experience of the people’s day-to-day.” I’ve always been influenced by hip hop artists’ sampling of different music materials, where they create new associations [out of older songs] and recontextualize or juxtapose preexisting material. That felt like an interesting device for me to employ in the film.
The older Hollywood productions we acknowledge were major events in Hawaii’s history and, regardless of how its people were represented, still serve as historical records. That was the first point I wanted to make. I was very much influenced by Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself, where the filmmaker breaks down into categories different movies that were shot in Los Angeles. As a subject and as a character, what is a particular film set in Los Angeles saying [about the city]? When you look at each source individually, does it play on its own or does it need to be recontextualized or reimagined in a group? I wanted to explore that idea.
The editing of our film was a process I shared with my co-producer and co-writer Michael Vass, brainstorming how to present each archival source to the viewer, who may not possess the larger context of what these older films represent. We created a very simple template of different categories for the films and would then ask [residents] how they were involved in them. From there, our historical research lead us to discovering that these Hollywood productions were very deliberate, often originating as the Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association (HSPA)’s attempts at PR (the HSPA, of course, worked with the sugarcane companies that made up the “Big Five”). The productions then slowly became more rooted in the United States’ interests in statehood and militarism, and these messages were crafted by and monitored through the United States Office of War Information.
All of this is not to say that movies were the main point of influence [for the public’s perception of Hawaii] or that they were the main way these institutions asserted control. I just felt that it made sense for myself to express these things by referencing other films. There’s been extensive research done on redacted CIA files that show that [the CIA] relentlessly spied on the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). However, a lot of text found within confidential files doesn’t necessarily translate to a movie screen. I took the approach of reworking the entertainment and dramatic value of a film to tell this story and keep everything on track.
This decision was also a way of reworking the logic of these entertainments. When a hip-hop artist uses an older, kitschier track, they’re sampling the idea and the feeling [of the older track], but now the lyrics have been changed and they’re perhaps more socially relevant or in contrast to the mood of the original sample. Nonetheless, the original beat keeps the whole thing going, and this film similarly coasts on the rush one gets when presented with a lot of material that’s being reworked. We’re reworking how exotica functions, or how kitchshy representation functions to tell another story, without completely throwing the original out.
Filmmaker: I can imagine you creating countless clip bins saved on editing software to reference later on. Do you go through your personally filmed material, then a light bulb goes off and you rummage through archival footage to see how the two can be cross-cut?
Banua-Simon: It’s all a result of working with these parallel timelines and not being able to anticipate when one turns out to be relevant to the other. I wasn’t always sure where it was going, to be honest, as I was working with (in addition to many interviews and oral histories that never made it into the film) many, many movies. That’s not even including the section of the film where we include a bunch of publicly-uploaded YouTube videos from tourists or recent transplants who shot their own footage. But that too is [worthwhile], in that there’s the idea of these tourists being in complete control of their own media but they’re still reflecting back the myths that were consciously constructed during an earlier phase of fighting for the identity of Hawaii.
Filmmaker: How did you meet the activists who were looking to restore the land previously occupied by the Coco Palms Resort? That portion of the film stands out as being very much in the present, and you show run-ins with local law enforcement you couldn’t necessarily have anticipated or strategically planned for. How did you get connected to them and how were you staying in contact with their sit-ins when you were back home in New York?
Banua-Simon: That was a unique experience as, yes, so much of the film consists of me going through archives or speaking with someone about something that has already occurred. There are several moments in the film where we hear about a strike or a protest, but after the fact, right? The occupying of Coco Palms was then always going to be a focal point for me, as the resort’s history overlaps with so many of the documentary’s themes. There’s the “Golden Era” of Coco Palms that’s steeped in nostalgia and has Elvis and Bing Crosby representing a symbol of that era. At the same time, it’s the most sacred place for Native Hawaiians on Kaua’i, representing an actual place where royalty once stood. There were several (if not hundreds—but so far we can confirm several) burials conducted there and it’s still considered a sacred place. But when I began filming at Coco Palms, all of this history was just that: history. There was no outward-facing conflict currently taking palce. It was just something people were aware of.
I went on a tour of the Coco Palms grounds at least three times to get new material from the tour guide, Bob Jasper, and to film guests’ interactions [with him]. There’s actually a funny scene that’s not in the film where a man, Danny Hashimoto (who sadly passed away recently), tells me a great story. At the very beginning of the film, you hear the audio of his voice saying, “We were wandering around the land as kids and wandered onto that iconic wedding scene in Blue Hawaii. There I am!” Due to that story, I brought Danny on the tour with me and told Bob Jasper that I had a camera, and that Danny was going to tell the tour group his Blue Hawaii story and show everyone where it was shot. The people loved it. They were obsessed with Elvis and this specific place but didn’t have an association with Hawaii other than that movie, or having attended a wedding there in the 1990s and wanting it to be restored back to an older nostalgic era that they held onto. But it was a funny interaction because Danny became such a movie star in that moment. Here was this guy who actually met Elvis and everyone on the tour wanted to take a photo with him. But still, there was no direct conflict with Coco Palms in that sequence either.
A couple years after I started filming in 2014, Native Hawaiian activists began occupying and restoring the space. I would spend a month or two at a time [in Kaua’i], then return to New York. As this film was a self-funded project, whenever I had time and money saved from working in New York, I would travel to Kaua’i and, when I couldn’t, I always kept track of what was happening in the local news. This is also how I conducted much of my archival research. I’d be on the island, physically absorbing as much as I could firsthand, then I’d have to go back to New York and track videos of the island uploaded to YouTube.
I first heard about the activists’ occupation at Coco Palms through articles published by the Civil Beat (the occupation received a lot of early support). As I still didn’t know how my film was going to end, I thought, “OK, I’ll see where this goes.” On my next trip to Kaua’i, I met with [activist] Ke’ala Lopez and we talked for a good two hours about what I’d done so far with the film and the things I still wished to address. What was unique about this interaction was that the activists had a concrete goal that they wanted to receive a direct result from (and that my project would comment on). I had to be conscious of the time that they were giving me, as they were trying to achieve something they didn’t yet have. They didn’t have much spare time! One of the offerings that I had was that I would film with them and, at the end of the shoot, give them my footage and they could do what they wanted with it [for their cause]. I was sympathetic to their goal, but I wanted to focus my film on things that served the larger story and not necessarily turn it into a direct advocacy piece. They agreed with me and it seemed like a good idea at the time, but due to the group ultimately dismantling, that never happened. I don’t know what it would’ve looked like, but it was [a compromise] I came up with on the spot that seemed right for each of us and they agreed. That’s how that relationship started.