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After Hurricane Katrina, a Vietnamese American neighborhood in New Orleans pushes back against a proposed toxic landfill.
S. Leo Chiang is an Emmy Award-nominated documentarian. His film, A Village Called Versailles, about the rebuilding and transformation of the Vietnamese American community in post-Katrina New Orleans, picked up eight film festival awards and aired on PBS’s Independent Lens. His documentary… Mr. Cao Goes to Washington won the Inspiration Award at the 2012 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. His other films include To You Sweetheart, Aloha (PBS broadcast 2006), One + One (CINE Golden Eagle Award 2002), and Safe Journey. Chiang also collaborates with fellow filmmakers as an editor (True-Hearted Vixens, POV 2001; Recalling Orange County) and as a cameraman (Ask Not, Independent Lens 2009). Born in Taiwan and based in San Francisco, Leo received his MFA in film production from University of Southern California. He is an active member of New Day Films, the social issue documentary distribution co-operative.
More than three decades ago, Vietnamese refugees began to settle in Versailles, a then-isolated community in eastern New Orleans. By the early 2000s, this working-class enclave was home to 8,000 residents. But although the community had accomplished material successes, it remained divided between older immigrants and American-born youth. Many Versailles residents felt like perpetual outsiders in greater New Orleans, ignored by the local government.A Village Called Versailles is the incredible story of this little-known, tight-knit community in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. When the storm devastated New Orleans in August 2005, Versailles residents rebuilt their neighborhood faster than any other damaged neighborhood in the city, only to find themselves threatened by a new toxic landfill slated to open just two miles away. Forced out of Vietnam by the war 30 years ago, many residents felt their homes were being taken away from them once again.
By January 2006, more than half of the neighborhood has been rebuilt, financed by friends and family, with no help from FEMA. Community leaders put together an ambitious redevelopment plan for Versailles, including its own senior housing, a cultural center, and a community farm and market. But New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin exercised his emergency power to open Chef Menteur Landfill mere miles from Versailles for toxic debris disposal from Katrina — without getting an environmental impact study first.
Outraged, Versailles fought back. Residents protested at City Hall and crowded public hearings by the hundreds, making the Vietnamese community’s presence felt in New Orleans for the first time. As elders and youth fought side by side — chanting in English and Vietnamese — Versailles finally won a political voice.