Spring weather arrived in San Francisco this past weekend along with the 28th annual San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. Despite the glorious weather, the afternoon showing of filmmaker Leo Chiang’s documentary, A Village Called Versailles, was completely sold-out.
In the devastation following Hurricane Katrina one of the first communities to come back and rebuild was a small, densely populated Vietnamese community in the New Orleans neighborhood of Village de l’Est. This approximately two-mile long neighborhood. known as Versailles to its residents, houses the biggest concentration of Vietnamese outside of Vietnam. While many Vietnamese are Buddhist, the immigrants who settled in Versailles are predominantly Catholics from three rural villages in North Vietnam who fled the country during the Vietnam War. The spiritual and community center in Versailles is a charismatic pastor named Vien Nguyen.
When Pastor Nguyen held his first mass following Katrina, 300 people came from as far away as Houston (a five hour drive), to be with their community. Eight hundred people showed up for the second mass, and 2,200 showed up for the third.
The drama of A Village Called Versailles is not the usual “quiet rebuilding of a scattered post-storm community” you’ve seen and heard many times before.
Instead, it’s the story of a community that had to overcome its cultural reticence regarding political activism when Mayor Ray Nagin signed an executive order authorizing the dumping of toxic and moldy Katrina debris into the Chef Menteur Landfill, two miles from Versailles. It starts to look suspiciously like environmental racism when you plop your poisonous garbage down in the backyard of poor people who don’t speak English, are quietly self-sufficient, and don’t generally kick up a fuss.
This documentary was in the category of two-hanky sniffler for the film festival audience, who seemed to appreciate the story of normally quiet senior citizens who rallied with the younger generation to remind the city and the nation that they were Americans and this was their home too.
In the question and answer period after the movie, the filmmaker noted that he showed the film to the Versailles community at their lunar new year festival and they turned the movie off after 20 minutes because no one was paying attention. Director Chiang noted that members of the community only seem to realize how noteworthy their story is when they view the movie with an outside audience.
A Village Called Versailles plays again tomorrow, March 16 at the VIZ Cinema in San Francisco’s Japantown, and at Camera 12 Cinema in San Jose on Saturday, March 20. The documentary has also been picked up by PBS and will be coming to the small screen at the end of May.