It gives the impression of a perfect tropical paradise but has been a living hell for generations. Just twenty minutes away by plane from Honolulu, the remote peninsula of Kalaupapa on the island of Molokai served as one of the most (in)famous leprosy colonies in the world for over a century. Between 1866 and 1969, thousands of Hawaiians were locked away in what R. L. Stevenson called “a prison made of nature”, surrounded on three sides by the Pacific Ocean and cut off from the rest of Molokai by some of the highest sea cliffs in the world.
Leprosy reached epidemic proportions in the unprotected population in Hawaii in the 1860s and was criminalized by law in 1865. It turned out to be the longest, harshest episode of medical segregation in US history. Although leprosy is not particularly contagious, the hysteria surrounding this horrifyingly disfiguring disease was so great, that thousands of people were (often erroneously) identified with the disease, hunted down by law, stripped of their rights and torn from their families, often at gunpoint. Herded into cramped quarters in Honolulu before being shipped to exile on the neighbouring island, they were often simply dumped into the surf. On arrival the new residents found themselves in a lawless place devoid of all amenities and with little or no care, food or medicine. The situation changed in 1873 with the arrival of a Belgian priest, Father Damien, who transformed the rudimentary huts into a neat, small settlement, which today is home to a couple of dozen former patients. Medication, developed in the ’40s, stopped the contagious and debilitating effects of the disease, and, in 1969, also finally ended the isolation policy, opening the door to the outside world for those who wanted to leave.
However, some of the patients decided to stay in the tiny community that had become their home, living nowadays like any other Hawaiian senior citizen, fishing, gardening, watching television or reading, the only difference being that there are no schools, no cinemas, no restaurants or supermarkets, and still no road to the outside world.
In 1998, Cox was permitted by the former patients who still live there to make a biopic about Father Damian, but the unfortunately misappropriated big-budget international co-production turned into a disaster after stormy on-set fights and dramas with his co-producers, as Paul Cox sadly recalls.
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