Film captures spirit of lost hippie enclave
The documentary unfolds through the eyes of the people who lived at the camp
One of the most absorbing anecdotes in the new documentary film about Taylor Camp, a hippie enclave on Kauai in the late 1960s and early 1970s, is Suzanne "Bobo" Bollin's story about swimming from Kee Beach, the location of the camp, to Kalalau, some 11 miles away. Whenever she felt close to overdosing on drugs, she'd cleanse herself with a long swim in the ocean -- completely naked.
Show times: 2 p.m. tomorrow at Hawaii Theatre; and at 4:30 and 7 p.m. today at The Palace Theatre on the Big Island
Tied to her fins was a sealed jug containing food, a couple of joints, a bathing suit and a pareau for when she reached civilization again. Sometimes she stayed at Kalalau for days or even a month, and ran back barefoot on the trail. Other times she continued around, then hitchhiked back to camp.
In the film, which screens at Hawaii Theatre tomorrow afternoon, Bobo's granddaughter, Natalie Noble, reenacts the fascinating scenes that took place more than three decades ago. Those shots of Noble swimming (in the buff) just off the rocky shore highlight the movie's stunning aerial footage of the Na Pali Coast.
"Taylor Camp" is a story told with a pleasing mix of evocative black-and-white photographs set to the likes of Cat Stevens and Simon and Garfunkle music, contrasted against present-day interviews with the people who lived there and posed for those anthropological pictures. Photographer and filmmaker John Wehrheim -- the man behind the pictures, film and new book -- said he avoided the simpler narrative voice-over because he didn't want to talk for the camp residents.
"I thought it was very important that they tell their stories and no narrator be involved in trying to formulate what the audience was thinking," he said from his studio on Maui. "Everybody's Taylor Camp was different. Everyone had a different point of view about certain details. I felt it was really important to get a balanced perspective."
The movie opens with shots related to the Vietnam War to establish the volatile and distinct period. Several of the approximately 100 people who ended up living on the seven acres arrived in camp to "de-program" from horrors in Vietnam.
Another said she "just wanted to live life on my own terms for the first time." Some were surfers.
One woman hoped to live out her "Jane fantasy in the jungle and run around naked." All enjoyed free love, engaged in spiritual pursuits, built relationships and raised children.
The existence was idyllic, but not perfect. A young woman died of AIDS (diagnosed in retrospect) from sharing needles. Staphylococcus infections afflicted the group.
High school kids dropped out of school. Most of the time the Taylor Camp residents maintained friendly relations with the Kauai locals, but occasionally fights erupted. Plenty of serious drugs supplemented the marijuana sprouting along the riverbank. People argued in their tree houses. They lived on unemployment and food stamps, or perhaps financially stable yet distant parents. But when asked to recall the end of the era, the fond memories moved nearly all of the former residents to tears.
The film's genesis dates to 1971, when Wehrheim first visited Taylor Camp. "It was still pretty raw and rough," he said.
Eventually, the tents evolved into sophisticated, comfortable multi-room dwellings on stilts -- still rustic enough to avoid getting labeled as permanent homes, which were forbidden in the area.
Attracted aesthetically and culturally, he started shooting black and white photographs. At first, the residents were skeptical.
But "if you return and bring your prints, you'll be welcomed," Wehrheim discovered. "It's the family album approach that really attracts people. There's all sorts of nudity, but those pictures are not prurient in any way." Indeed, over the last 30 years, galleries that don't show nudes have exhibited the photos.
These pictures display a group of people living with few material possessions and even less money. Yet they were content and dedicated to living authentically. One commented that "you didn't have to be naked (though most were); what you had to be was real, and people called you on it."
In no particular sequence, the film allows the story to unfold through the eyes of the people who lived it. Howard Taylor, actress Elizabeth Taylor's brother, had purchased the beachfront parcel for his own home. But the state refused to approve his plans or issue building permits. Thus began the long road to condemnation for a state park. Along the way, Taylor heard about 13 vagrants from Berkeley, Calif., arrested on Kauai and sitting in jail. In what could be considered a moderate act of revenge, he and his wife picked them up, and invited them to live on his land. The camp lasted from 1968 to 1977, when state officials asked residents to leave and burned down the structures.
In a brilliant addition, Wehrheim interviews Kauai residents who share their views on the camp. Some admit to feeling jealous of the carefree lifestyle. While the series of anecdotes from all sides can sometimes be difficult to track, they always entertain (Bobo does her interview completely naked, for instance).
Linear story telling isn't really necessary here. Instead, the movie captures a time and place in history outside the norm of an already fractured country. It's temporary status added to its mystical quality, as did its demise.
"It had to end," said Wehrheim. "The world changed, and when it changed, the camp had to go."