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Taylor Camp

June 11, 2009
Paul Janes-Brown

Forty years ago, 13 young Mainland people who had been jailed for vagrancy on Kaua‘i were given sanctuary by Howard Taylor, actress Elizabeth Taylor’s brother. He had been thwarted from building his dream home, and partly as a way to get back at the powers-that-be and partly as a thoroughly altruistic gesture, he began what later became known as Taylor Camp.

In the ’60s and ’70s, young people flocked to Hawai‘i to live—the culture clashes are well documented in newspaper stories of the day. The longest-lived and most fully realized of their communal experiments was Taylor Camp, which began in 1969 and ended in flames in 1977. However, during that time, this group of pioneering spirits realized the peace and freedom that “Flower Children” everywhere were seeking.

Unspoiled by the commercialism that infected the “counterculture” and turned it into the mainstream, these young spiritual and social explorers lived, loved, procreated, anesthetized themselves, and tried to coexist with the straight society and the local people on Kaua‘i.

This extraordinary social experiment is chronicled in a masterpiece of cinema that will screen on Saturday, June 13, at 5 and 7:30 p.m. at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s Castle Theater in Kahului. The film, directed, shot and edited by Robert C. Stone, co-produced with music supervision by Tom Vendetti and produced by John Wehrheim, features Wehrheim’s glorious photos.

As great as the photos are, there would be no story without Stone’s virtuosic filmmaking. The filmmakers tracked down and interviewed as many of the original campers as they could, and those interviews, interwoven with the photos and backed up by Vendetti’s masterful musical background choices, make up a film that everyone who went to or wished they had gone to Woodstock will cherish.

It’s more than a film; it’s a living document of the universal, perennial cultural clash between the next generation coming of age and wanting to live as they see fit and their disapproving elders, who wish they would just get jobs, settle down and mirror the status quo.

The filmmakers also tracked down former police officers and locals who both admired and resented the young, mostly naked, vagrants.

It beautifully tells the story of the clash between the locals and the invaders from their own points of view. It shows how the local young people enjoyed the fruits of their strange neighbors’ labors and also looked at them as some otherworldly beings living in the Stone Age in the 20th Century.

One of the most telling of the interviews is with Georgia Mossman, a reporter for The Garden Isle newspaper, right out of central casting. Hard-bitten and clear-headed, she reveals that while the paper didn’t have anything against the “hippies,” they weren’t adverse to print “bad things about the hippies.” She blames them for the proliferation of drugs on the island at the time—as far as marijuana is concerned, she’s not far off.

One of the campers, Vos Tcehapraste, explained how the locals and campers faced off, and one of the naked women, who was rather brassy, deflected both sides’ attention and got them to make peace the way the Native Americans did with the “white man”—with a smoke.

The insights of the prosecutor of the Taylor 13, Eduardo Malapit, who later became the mayor, in part on the strength of that prosecution, are particularly ironic and perhaps slightly prejudiced: As we later learn, his son, William, nicknamed “Kung Fu Bill,” was “lost” to the settlers at Taylor Camp.

At its height, the seven-acre site off Kuhio Highway hosted 100 children and adults in 34 structures, including a communal toilet, a hot shower, a free store and three churches. Some people worked, some people grew and marketed marijuana. Children went to local schools and coexisted with straight society as best they could.

Among the most beautiful segments of the film is a re-enactment of one of Bobo Hawk’s many legendary 12-mile swims from Taylor Camp to Kalalau Beach. Bobo’s grand-daughter, Natalie Noble, played her in the reenactment, which involved a helicopter crew, an underwater cameraman, a crew on the trail and a boat crew. It’s an extremely complex and breathtaking segment, and you will come away with great admiration for Bobo’s strength, courage and ingenuity.

The film chronicles a time not unlike this one, when we were mired in an unpopular war. It makes you wonder what it will take for us to learn how to live together. In the words of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., “We must either learn to live together as brothers, or we will die together as fools.”

Don’t miss this film. I guarantee you will love it and it will live with you for a long time thereafter. For more information, go to www.taylorcampfilm.com.

 

Talking with the Filmmakers
Sky Barnhart

When the film Taylor Camp started out, it was just a 20-minute slideshow at the old Kilauea Theater on Kaua‘i. “So many people showed up we had to call the fire department!” said Tom Vendetti, the film’s co-producer and music supervisor.

After the show, audience members had a vital message for the filmmakers: “You have to do more with this!” Interest in the legendary Taylor Camp was overwhelming.

That was natural on Kaua‘i, the filmmakers thought—after all, Kaua‘i residents were neighbors and participants in the phenomenon that was Taylor Camp.

“We had to ask ourselves, ‘Is this just a Kaua‘i or just a Hawai‘i film?’” said director, cinematographer and editor Robert Stone. “We transcended that and found that it’s really universal.”

What is it about Taylor Camp that continues to have such a strong pull for people, even those with no connection to it?

For many, like Vendetti, the film provides a chance to reminisce and relive their own experiences during that extraordinary time period. For others, like Stone, it’s a window into a way of life they may have missed out on. For many of us, it’s an idea that speaks to our higher sensibilities as we evaluate the materialism of society and look toward a more sustainable lifestyle. “History repeats itself,” Vendetti said.

The film is also valuable as a way to shine some light onto the inner workings of the camp, which received mostly negative press throughout its existence.

“It’s a whole different perspective on what went on,” Stone said. “It’s good to dispel the myths that it was just a bunch of crazy, naked hippies smoking pot and having orgies every night.” Not that there wasn’t plenty of drugs and sex at Taylor Camp, but “it was really mostly about relationships,” Stone said, as the film illustrates.

The compelling black-and-white photographs that began the journey were taken by the film’s producer, John Wehrheim. In 1973, Wehrheim was living in the Taylors’ guesthouse across Haena Bay when he began photographing the campers. Two years later, after returning to Kaua‘i from his work documenting refugees in Asia, he recognized Taylor Camp’s significance as both a traditional village and refugee settlement and began to seriously document the scene. 

Thirty years later, Wehrheim still had contact information for many of campers, and the filmmakers were able to start the interview process. Although some people were reticent at first, “once they started talking about Taylor Camp, they just lit up,” Vendetti said. “You could feel the tension go away.”

The film was four years in the making as it evolved through hundreds of interviews, edits and versions. The newly polished version will soon be resubmitted to the Sundance Film Festival, having received rave reviews at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival in March.

Preparing for the Maui premiere, the filmmakers are eager to see what kind of reactions Taylor Camp will elicit—especially since at least half-a-dozen former Taylor Campers are now Maui residents.

 
 

 

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