Saturday, May 22, 2010

New NOLA: A Village Called Versailles

Most armchair political analysts were stunned when a Vietnamese-American Republican defeated scandal-plagued Democrat William Jefferson to represent nearly the entire city of New Orleans in Congress. Party registration will remain a challenge for freshman Rep. Joseph Cao, but the strength and resiliency of the Crescent City’s Vietnamese community has emerged as a major post-Katrina political development. Documenting the unexpected rise of the New Orleans East neighborhood that challenged an out-of-touch municipal government, S. Leo Chiang’s A Village Called Versailles (trailer here) airs this coming Monday as part of the current season of Independent Lens on most PBS outlets.

Many of the older Vietnamese residents of the Versailles neighborhood (named after a large housing complex in Eastern New Orleans) had already endured two painful dislocations. Mostly from two predominantly Catholic towns in the North, they had first fled the North Vietnamese Communists to the South, only to come to America as refugees following the fall of Saigon. Indeed, the Katrina evacuation brought back many painful memories.

However, this time they returned, reclaiming their homes and neighborhood, in large measure thanks to the unifying role played by Father Vien Nguyen and the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, their rebuilding efforts were nearly sabotaged when then “Mayor” Ray Nagin used dubious emergency powers to dump an environmentally questionable landfill in their midst.

Refreshingly, Chiang’s broadcast cut refrains from the sort of cheap political shots that are often commonplace in Katrina related documentaries. However, there is just no papering-over Nagin’s arrogant disregard for the Versailles community. Of course, he is now gone, but they are still there.

While documentaries about so-called “political empowerment” are often rather dull and stilted, Village is legitimately inspiring. It unambiguously illustrates the positive role faith can play in public life at a time when organized religion and the Catholic Church in particular do not get a lot of love from the documentary film community. Village also celebrates the voluntarist spirit and genuine grassroots activism. The film’s only real shortcoming is the largely synthesized soundtrack. Though some pleasant incidental music was obviously composed to evoke the neighborhood’s Vietnamese heritage, in general, it is disappointing to hear only incidental snatches of distinctly NOLA (or Versailles) music.

Appearing only ever-so-briefly in the film, Cao’s victory became the obvious capstone for Village. Indeed, it clearly explains the circumstances apart from the Jefferson scandal that made his election possible. The winner of the New Orleans Film Festival’s Audience Award, Village is easily one of the more uplifting documentaries about the Katrina aftermath. The film offers a number of important lessons, not the least being the positive role faith can play in a community. Definitely recommended, it airs Tuesday (5/25) on most PBS stations.