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.
But Cox, one of Australia’s foremost and uncompromising filmmakers and, as some people say, its only “true” author, kept in close contact with the people he met in Kalaupapa. So when they invited him to come back to make a documentary, he didn’t hesitate for a second. A couple of months later, with the fast and non-bureaucratic support of the Adelaide FF and the South Australia Film Commission, he and his crew boarded the plane that took them back to Molokai.
This superb, profoundly moving documentary tells the heartbreaking stories of the last survivors left behind, and – through interviews, archival footage and even some re-enactments – attempts to record the memories of this colony before they disappear along with its residents, slowly passing away (some died during and after the shooting). Although normally no one is allowed to even take photographs of the residents of the ex-colony, still called “patients” by each other and the state, Cox and his crew earned their deep trust and full support, which is felt throughout the whole film.
The excellent camerawork of Tony Clark does not avoid filming the unbearable, resting steadily for long close-ups on faces that have lost all semblance of a human face, and yet, listening to the often distorted voices or whispers sharing their sufferings and joys and telling their stories of love and loss, we suddenly see the beauty of the human being hidden behind the mutilation.
“I have seen sights that cannot be told and heard stories that cannot be repeated,” wrote R. L. Stevenson in 1889, “yet I never admired my poor race so much nor (strange as it may seem) loved life more than in the settlement.” Paul Cox’s documentary, too, gives praise to the strength of the human spirit and celebrates life in the face of adversity. Cox, however, doesn’t discuss his own feelings. Avoiding both condescension and sensationalism, he gives these men and women their own singular voice and, thus, a profoundly human meditation about life and death.