Independent Lens: A Village Called Versailles

The story of the Ninth Ward's Vietnamese community is recalled in A Village Called Versailles, which features both Mardi Gras parades and traditional Vietnamese celebrations.

Independent Lens: A Village Called Versailles

Airtime: Tuesdays, 10pm ET
Cast: Pastor Vien Nguyen, Father Luke Nguyen
Network: PBS
Director: S. Leo Chiang
Air date: 2010-05-25

"Katrina was, in many ways, a good thing. It galvanized the people. We have a sense of who we are and who we could be." Listening to Father Vien Nguyen, you might wonder how hard he's digging to find an upside. It is true that, as pastor of the Mary Queen of Vietnam Church in New Orleans' Ninth Ward, Father Nguyen provides structure and solace for his flock. But, as he observes, that flock has also found its own way, in the face of ongoing natural and manmade adversities.

The story of the Ninth Ward's Vietnamese community is recalled in A Village Called Versailles, airing 25 May as part of PBS' Independent Lens series. S. Leo Chiang's documentary offers some well-known touchstones to set up context and, perhaps, expectations: footage of the storm and the floods, a brief bit of a parade band playing "When the Saints Go Marching In." And then, it features some less familiar imagery: a road sign reading "Saigon Drive," a traditional Vietnamese celebration, featuring fireworks and áo dais. Now, after the storm and a long series of fights with local authorities, Father Nguyen says, "We feel we can control our destiny and it has not always been that way."

The community was initiated in 1975, when Vietnamese refugees journeyed from their homes, "mostly by boat," following the fall of Saigon. As Father Nguyen explains, at that moment, recovering from years of war, the refugees were hardly welcomed by their new neighbors. Rather, they were deemed "people who do not know our way of life," according to a contemporary local TV news report. Forming a sort of enclave in Eastern New Orleans, a neighborhood also called Village de l'est, they were used to trouble. And, as the film shows, they never gave in to it. Instead, the saw Versailles, as Father Nguyen says, "a place to take refuge from the outside world." The new arrivals set to rebuilding their lives, drawing on their own experience: they started planting vegetable gardens on the bayous.

In 2005, the population numbered 8,000 and the mostly working class community felt settled. Katrina changed that, of course. Residents were moved first to the Convention Center and then to camps in Houston, San Antonio, and Fort Chafee, Arkansas, in fact, the place where Father Nguyen recalls first landing in the U.S., at a refugee camp. "I try not to compare because, you cannot be a refugee in your own country kind of thing," but, says Mimi Nguyen, a FEMA Volunteer from California, still tearful as she remembers, "That's a part that really gets me."

At the same time, the Vietnamese refugees were not seeing themselves represented in TV images of the disaster or in official accountings. And so they organized themselves, again, keeping their own lists of who went where. When the residents began to come back to Versailles, Mimi Nguyen was again moved by their efforts to hold their community together, as well as their connection to the land they had been farming, and so she soon took up their cause with a passion.

This cause was complicated when the city of New Orleans -- embodied in footage here by Mayor Ray Nagin -- announced it would be dumping its considerable post-storm waste in Versailles. Though officials insisted it would be safe, they offered no means to measure toxicity levels, and so the residents fought back. The film recounts this battle -- community organizing, intergenerational generational collaborations, and intelligent use of media as well as legal resources.

It's distracting at times when the documentary falls back on clichéd images and plinky piano scoring to sentimentalize its saga. But the story, much like the community, prevails. Aided by Joel Waltzer, a Civil Attorney in New Orleans, who fought their case in courts, as well as City Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis, the Versailles community worked together to rebuild their lives and resist outside oppressions yet again. The Chef Menteur landfill was yet another poorly conceived shortcut. As the residents of Versailles insisted on making this politically nefarious strategy public, they survived. Again.

It's not a little ironic that this same community is now enduring still more travails in the form of the BP oil spill. As Waltzer says at the end of A Village Called Versailles, "The Vietnamese leadership is demanding political power, demanding a voice." And so they will face hardship. Again.

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