With oil from the BP underwater gusher now reaching the Louisiana shore and invading its wetlands, and the livelihoods of the people of the Gulf Coast once again in peril, Tuesday night's broadcast of S. Leo Chiang's "A Village Called Versailles," about the Vietnamese Catholic community of East New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, seems especially well-timed. The details are different — force of nature versus man-made disaster — but each highlights the way Louisianians negotiate both fragile ecology and feckless politics.
While the current situation seems to worsen every day beyond the last day's unhappiest imaginings, and while the city has yet to fully recover from the events of 2005, Chiang's film, which airs as part of the PBS series "Independent Lens," is a lively and uplifting one. Most particularly, it's about how an emergency can reshape and strengthen a community; but in a more general way, it's about what it means to, if you'll excuse the Saturday Evening Post figure, be an American — in this case, Catholic, Asian, New Orleanian and, possibly most important, willing to make a noise.
The village in question takes its name from the Versailles Arms Apartment, the housing projects that were the first home to the Vietnamese refugees who came to New Orleans in the mid-1970s. Most of the area's 8,000-some inhabitants have roots in two North Vietnamese Catholic dioceses, Bui Chu and Phat Diem; they traveled south when the Communists moved in, in 1954, and fled again, to America, after the fall of Saigon in 1975. An invitation from the archbishop of New Orleans brought them to the Big Easy, where, not without conflict, they began (as at home) to fish, and began also the familiar generational drift toward becoming local, if not quite integrated.
A hurricane is a great leveler, however, and like other citizens of New Orleans, the people of Versailles found themselves stuck inside the Superdome, and then evacuated to Texas and to Fort Chaffee, Ark., where many of them had been interned when they first arrived in the United States. Although they were among the earliest communities to return to the city in force, they were also used to keeping their heads down and had never become a political force, or even a consideration. But when they learned that Versailles, heavily damaged, was to be remade as "green space," and that a hastily begun and environmentally dodgy landfill, with the potential to rise as high as 80 feet, was being opened just down the road, they took to the streets.
And (with the help of their black councilwoman and a white lawyer) they prevailed. Titles at the end of the film note that, at the time of the film's completion, 90% of the inhabitants had returned to Versailles; that the dump remained closed; and that in 2008, Anh "Joseph" Cao a resident of Versailles, became the first Vietnamese American to be elected to Congress. Monday, across the river from New Orleans, he held a "claims fair" to inform and assist victims of the oil spill.