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September 3, 2008 - Rick Chatenever
Not long after Hawaii became a state, the hippies started arriving.
Many were fleeing all the upheaval rocking the Mainland at the time — the Vietnam war, the racism, the riots in the streets. With their long hair, their VW bugs and no more worldly possessions than a backpack could hold, they weren’t exactly welcomed in the islands, which were going through their own growing pains, trying to shrug off their plantation past and become United State No. 50.
This moment in history is vividly captured in a new documentary, “Taylor Camp,” from the creative team behind “Bhutan,” which premiered last year in Castle Theater — producer John Wehrheim, director Robert Stone and fellow Maui filmmaker Tom Vendetti.
“Taylor Camp” is an account of a unique counterculture community that sprang up on Kauai property belonging to Elizabeth Taylor’s brother, Howard, from 1969 to 1977. The documentary is still a work in progress. The filmmakers are in the final-edit phase, trying to have it ready to submit to the Sundance Film Festival in a few weeks. A handful of us had a chance to serve as a focus group last weekend, offering feedback at a preview screening.
Even in preview form, it was what was known in those days as a great trip.
Juxtaposing Wehrheim’s crisp black and white photos of how it was then against interviews with former residents as they are now, the filmmakers don’t so much tell a story as bring the vitality and spirit of those unique times back to life.
Few of the expected stereotypes — not to mention the jokes — now associated with the term hippie can be found in the lyrical film pulsing to the folk-flavored music of the era. What there is instead is the naive, boundlessly hopeful mindset that played as much of a role as Kauai’s spectacular Na Pali coast at making the place resemble paradise for that all-too-brief moment.
Light shines through the curtains in the primitive kitchens captured in the photos. Tree houses perch in the trees, part architecture, part whimsy. Nude children and their parents frolic on idyllic beaches, oblivious to their nakedness.
The black and white photos are radiant and luminous. The interview comments are articulate, alternately insightful, amusing and poignant. True, the ethic of the era — sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll — definitely set the agenda for Taylor camp, where most of the residents wore a minimum of clothing; lived in tree houses; consumed, grew and sold marijuana; and got back to nature and simplicity in their lodgings and tribal social network.
But amidst the nudity and other practices that would be branded “counterculture,” there’s an absence of anything prurient, decadent or cynical. Instead, the most enduring memory for the former residents, most of whom went on to become viable contributors to “normal” society, was the innocence of their youth.
A few of the residents were young Kauai natives. The filmmakers also interview government officials, store owners and neighbors of the camp property.
Newspaper headlines from the times were hardly flattering to the newcomers as the government and law enforcement tried to control them and chase them away. Confrontations did occur between the “Primo warrior” locals and the flower child squatters. But here, too, the movie’s tone takes an unexpected twist, as at least some of the locals couldn’t help responding to the residents of this newest island plantation “camp” with friendly curiosity, and even aloha.
Even these encounters contribute to dimming memories of Taylor Camp as some sort of paradise, which of course lead to the metaphor, and historic inevitability, of paradise lost.
Taylor Camp was all about the quixotic “revolution” of the ’60s, with its childlike rejection of materialism, its efforts to forge new definitions of family and its abiding faith in love as the answer … no matter what the question.
Watching “Taylor Camp” may make you think otherwise.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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