Behind the Scenes

Kevin Costner's Easter Pic

Anthropologists and filmakers squabble over the making of 'Rapa Nui'

Easter Island, the small volcanic rock 2,220 miles west of Chile, has survived epidemics, invaders, and colonialism. But can the isle — known in Polynesian as Rapa Nui — survive Hollywood? Last year, the 2,100 natives shared their South Pacific perch with 175 cast and crew members filming Rapa Nui, a Romeo and Juliet-style Polynesian love story coproduced by Kevin Costner, directed by Kevin Reynolds (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves), and starring Jason Scott Lee (Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story). It was Costner's sensitivity to Native Americans on Dances With Wolves that helped persuade the Chilean government to grant permission to film on the location. But now islanders are charging that the $20 million Warner Bros. production (due Sept. 9) has turned the island's economy and society topsy- turvy. Although islanders hired by the company were well paid by local standards-an estimated $25 a day-the production's presence, says Maori actor Pete Smith, sent the cost of living into the stratosphere. Tricia Allen, a university of Hawaii doctoral candidate in anthropology who visited the island during the shooting, claims the production promoted social problems, such as increased alcohol consumption among the young; and damaged archaeological sites, including contributing to the collapse of an ancient stone house and scratches on one of the famous moai-the roughly 800 looming stone heads that define the island's barren landscape. ''Whoever gave them permission to shoot this film was not thinking very clearly,'' says archaeologist Georgia Lee, who publishes the only newspaper about the island, the Rapa Nui Journal. ''This has had a horrendous impact.'' Director Reynolds admits some ancient sites were marred, but he insists none of the damage was significant and that all of the harm was done by islanders-despite the crew's best efforts to stop them. ''We would try to tell the local people you can't touch (the moai) while we're shooting, and they'd say, 'What do you mean? I live on this island.' And then we're blamed if they do.'' And Sergio Rapu, a former governor of the island who now heads the Institute for Polynesian Studies at Brigham Young University's campus in Hawaii, rejects claims that the islanders were exploited as ''paternalistic and colonialist.'' Although the movie wrapped more than a year ago, the controversy is far from settled. Already Rapu is saying that if Rapa Nui is a hit-a clip from the movie received enthusiastic applause when it screened at last April's ShoWest convention-the filmmakers have a moral responsibility to help prepare the locals for a potentially damaging influx of tourism. Reynolds is having none of that. ''It's not gonna happen,'' he says. ''If they don't want the tourists, they can ban them.''

Originally posted Aug 26, 1994 Published in issue #237-238 Aug 26, 1994 Order article reprints
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