In the image at top, Joan Lander and Puhipau record Keith’s interview with Kaua’i lawyer Chris Kealoha for 1987 documentary Hawaiian Soul, co-produced by Naomi Sodetani.
Sand Island is a small island off the coast of O‘ahu that is connected to Honolulu by a four-lane bridge. It has gone by several monikers over the last few centuries—Sand Island is only the most recent, following Mauli Ola, Quarantine Island, and Ānuenue, or Rainbow Island. It has received of its fair share of affections and abuses over its lifetime. To name a few, it has been home to Native Hawaiian fishing grounds; an internment camp holding Japanese Americans for a brief time during World War II; and the location for our current wastewater treatment plant. By 1979, when documentary filmmaker Victoria Keith and her partner Jerry Rochford of Windward Video turned their cameras on it and its residents, it was called Sand Island, as crooned about in the opening song accompanying Keith’s grainy color film: “There’s an island, by the sea. Beautiful Sand Island, beautiful Sand Island.” It is an adaptation of “Beautiful Hawai‘i” by Sand Island resident George Cash, who lived there with family.
I came upon The Sand Island Story in the comments section of a Civil Beat story about the August 2014 proposal to use a parcel of land on the island as a Housing First transition center for the homeless population being displaced by a newly passed sit-lie bill for Waikīkī. Shortly after, a friend posted the documentary to my Facebook wall. Somehow, this film that was over 30 years old had made its way to YouTube and was still raising awareness of a significant time in the island’s history. Here is what I learned: In 1979, a small, predominantly Native Hawaiian fishing community that had moved onto the public land, creating homes amidst what many considered dumping grounds, fought against being evicted by the state. They had been deemed squatters, and plans made for a park along the shoreline were moving forward. It is a story that is still hard to watch, regardless of whether or not viewers believe the community was legally entitled to its oceanfront residence.
Keith and Rochford were contracted by University of Hawai‘i to document the Sand Island happenings for a small project, but when they arrived, they knew they would be sticking around longer. “We got down there and met all the amazing people there, saw all the amazing things they had done to survive,” says Keith. “We went down there every day until the evictions, then a little bit afterwards.” A rough edit of the film was widely shared, and after receiving a grant from the Corporation of Public Broadcasting, Windward Video was also able to create a final 28-minute edit that aired nationally in 1981 on PBS and in Hawai‘i around the same time.
A few years ago, Keith donated the original footage of all of her work to ‘Ulu‘ulu, a project by the Academy for Creative Media at UH that preserves photography and film that relate to Hawai‘i’s people and its rich heritage. This includes every film she made as part of the Windward Video duo and on her own—such as Back to the Roots, a documentary about the culture surrounding taro and water and land issues affecting its future—along with 60 tapes of the raw footage from Sand Island. However, having been recorded on actual film, everything was aged; Two Green Valleys, the oldest documentary, had rotted on the shelves and was missing large chunks of audio. (Filmed in 1975, Two Green Valleys was the first film she and Rochford made and was about successful grassroots efforts to prevent the eviction of farming families from agricultural land to make way for development within Waiāhole and Waikane valleys on O‘ahu.) She mailed the tapes to a studio in Kentucky to be restored, a complex process that includes putting the 1/2-inch reel-to-reel tapes in the oven at 200 degrees, and the results were dramatically improved digital renderings. “Because of that, I wanted to put Two Green Valleys up for the Waiāhole people,” she says.
Victoria Keith (second from left) and crew with taro-grower Sam Mock Chew in Waipi‘o during the filming of Back to the Roots in 1994.
Two Green Valleys became the second of numerous documentaries she uploaded to YouTube starting in early 2013; the first was The Sand Island Story. “I’ve always had people trying to get in touch with me, especially about The Sand Island Story,” says Keith, who still hears from people watching it for the first time, or rediscovering it. “They said that family had been in it and they hadn’t known about it until they saw it on YouTube.”
Keith got into documentary filmmaking after having two daughters and teaching at Castle High School. She returned to UH Mānoa to study journalism, and while she was there, worked with her former Castle students on a project that eventually turned into Two Green Valleys. She made the film with equipment borrowed from the department and edited at public libraries, which at the time, had three or four editing studios open to the community.
After 20 years of working second jobs and chasing grants to fund documentaries, Keith returned to teaching full time. She still keeps in touch with one of the familiar faces in The Sand Island Story, Puhipau, a man recognizable by his striking white beard who was then known as Abe Ahmad. After his experience at Sand Island, documented in an essay in the recently published book A Nation Rising, he decided to become a storyteller through film as well, joining forces with video producer Joan Lander, whom he met during the editing of The Sand Island Story, to form Nā Maka o ka Āina.
By early 1980, the homes on Sand Island were gone. Many of the islands’ nearly 400 residents chose to relocate beforehand; George Cash burned down his own structure before the Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources could destroy it. A handful of the community stayed even as their homes were bulldozed to the ground. Today, with the potential of a homeless population being relocated to a dirt lot alongside Sand Island’s main road, it all seems surprisingly relevant. Perhaps someone will record the story, captured in a series of 15-second Instagram posts, or, possibly, a 15-minute Vimeo video with its post-production funded via Kickstarter. Perhaps it won’t be documented at all. As for the story itself: Maybe Sand Island’s next chapter will be a surprising tale of success. Maybe, as others predict, it will be another black mark on the history of how Hawai‘i treats its most vulnerable community members. Whatever happens, until rising ocean levels slowly erase it from our shores, Sand Island will be there to meet our needs.
“It’s calling, calling to me. Beautiful Sand Island, beautiful Sand Island,” continues Cash’s song. “In the midst of all the garbage, mother nature made my home. By the shores of Sand Island, maybe won’t last too long.”