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Where EAST meets the Northwest

IT TAKES A VILLAGE. Filmmaker S. Leo Chiang’s A Village Called Versailles offers a moving portrait of a tight-knit Vietnamese community as it struggles to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Pictured are residents of Versailles returning to their neighborhood to check the damage following the hurricane. (Photo/Mary Queen of Vietnam Church, courtesy of the Independent Television Service)

From The Asian Reporter, V20, #15 (May 3, 2010), page 12 & 16.

Finding a voice in the wake of Katrina

A Village Called Versailles

Produced and directed by S. Leo Chiang

Presented by the Independent Television Service

Distributed by Walking Iris Films

Playing Wednesday, May 19 at 6:00pm at the University of Oregon’s Turnbull Portland Center

and Tuesday, May 25 at 11:00pm on Oregon Public Broadcasting

By Marie Lo

The Asian Reporter

When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in August 2005, it exposed the city’s racial and economic fault lines. Media coverage showed the massive evacuation and dispersal of the residents of the Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East while the touristy French Quarter and wealthier neighborhoods remained relatively unscathed. To this day, many residents have yet to return home. Missing from the extensive coverage, however, was the impact of Katrina on the large and vibrant Vietnamese community of New Orleans East.

S. Leo Chiang’s award-winning film, A Village Called Versailles, fills that gap, offering a moving portrait of the tight-knit Vietnamese community, its struggles to rebuild, and the emergence of its political voice and power.

The title refers to the Versailles Arms Apartment, a housing project in New Orleans East where many Vietnamese first settled in 1975. Though there are about 25,000 Vietnamese living in Louisiana, approximately 5,000 to 6,000 live within a mile to a mile and a half of Versailles Arms. According to Father Vien Nguyen, pastor of the Mary Queen of Vietnam Church and whose parish functions as the community’s spiritual and cultural anchor, the area is home to the highest concentration of Vietnamese outside of Vietnam.

What makes Chiang’s film so powerful is that it situates the community’s dispersal and rebuilding efforts within the history of Vietnamese exile and migration. For many of the older residents of Versailles, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina forced them to relive earlier displacements. Many were Catholic minorities who escaped North Vietnam when the country was split into North and South. Later, when Saigon fell, they were uprooted again. Eventually, through a circuitry of Catholic charities, they found themselves in New Orleans. Having endured life as refugees and despite the xenophobia they faced in the U.S., they set out to carve a life in New Orleans. The devastation of Katrina threatened to wipe out everything they had worked to build.

The federal government’s sluggish emergency response exacerbated the disaster. As community organizer Mimi Nguyen notes, one cannot be a refugee in his or her own country. But the footage of the massive crowds taking refuge at the Louisiana Superdome, the lines of people waiting desperately for food and water, the lack of basic amenities, and the growing anxiety and helplessness seem to suggest otherwise.

The film does not portray the Vietnamese of Versailles Arms as mere victims of war or natural disaster. It also marks their political coming of age. In that respect, the film tells the story of a kind of homecoming in which their return home to New Orleans parallels growing politicization and empowerment.

Under the leadership of pastor Nguyen, members of the Vietnamese community were among the first New Orleans East residents to return. However, they quickly discovered their neighborhoods were not factored in to the city’s rebuilding plan; they were not even on the map. In fact, the city had decided to locate a toxic landfill for the storm’s debris less than a mile and a half upstream from their home. For many, New Orleans East was not just where they lived, it grounded them and connected them to each other. Fear that the landfill would disperse them and prevent families from resettling galvanized the community into action.

Father Nguyen explains, "We have to fight because this is our land. We are connected to this land. New Orleans is home."

From the second- and third-generation youth who could no longer speak Vietnamese to the elders for whom Vietnamese was their only language, they organized a multigenerational, multiracial grassroots coalition. In collaboration with environmental advocacy groups, they successfully halted the dumping. In their struggle to return home, they found their political voice.

"For the Vietnamese community, we were always quiet. We were never on the map. Then came Katrina," says father Nguyen. "Because this community was threatened, we stepped forth." Since then, the Vietnamese community has become an important part of the city’s landscape. Less than three years after they blocked the city’s plans for the landfill, Anh Joseph Cao, a lawyer and former Versailles resident, upset nine-term incumbent William Jefferson to become the first Vietnamese American elected to congress.

A Village Called Versailles is playing Wednesday, May 19 at 6:00pm at the University of Oregon’s Turnbull Portland Center, located at 70 N.W. Couch Street in Portland. The film is also airing Tuesday, May 25 at 11:00pm on Oregon Public Broadcasting with a replay on Thursday, May 27 at 4:00am. To learn more, visit <www.avillagecalledversailles.com>.