The Making Of
Producer/director S. Leo Chiang talks about language barriers while filming, media attention in close-knit Versailles, and how he learned about the community by accident.
Independent Lens: What impact do you hope this film will have?
S. Leo Chiang: I hope the film will inspire underrepresented communities everywhere — groups of people whose collective voices were not often heard — to organize, to take action, and to fight for what they believe in.
IL: What led you to make A VILLAGE CALLED VERSAILLES?
SLC: I learned about the Versailles story entirely by accident. I had called up Dr. Wei Li, a geographer and Asian American studies scholar at Arizona State University, to discuss another documentary project I was researching. We started chatting about the work that she and her colleagues had been doing in New Orleans, studying the recovery of communities of color from Hurricane Katrina and the flood. She began telling me the story of the Versailles community. …I was immediately struck by [how] the people from this community, many of them Vietnamese refugees who had already lost their homeland once before during the Vietnam War, were fighting with everything they had so they wouldn’t lose their homeland once again.
Right away, I wanted to explore the possibility of making a film on this story. I asked Dr. Li if I could tag along on her subsequent trip to New Orleans, and she and her colleagues generously agreed. On that trip, they introduced me to Pastor Vien Nguyen and Father Luke Nguyen at the Mary Queen of Vietnam Church, and I was off and running.
IL: What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
SLC: I do not speak Vietnamese, and many of the older folks in the Versailles neighborhood do not speak English, so language was definitely a big challenge during the production process. We also spent a large amount of time and resources in researching archival footage. Because there was so little mainstream media coverage of the Vietnamese American stories during the Katrina disaster, we had to really dig deep to find the images of the Vietnamese American evacuees.
IL: How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?
SLC: Because of the fight against Chef Menteur landfill, the Versailles folks had already grown accustomed to media attention from journalists with cameras roaming around the neighborhood, so we didn’t stand out too much. Also, Versailles is such a close-knit community, once I was able to get the okay from Father Vien and Father Luke, most of the folks in the community were very open to chatting with us and letting us follow them around. We also had a lot of help from the younger leaders of the community, and from outside activists who had been living and working in the community for months. They were instrumental in getting us access and translating for us.
IL: What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?
SLC: Since we had such a hard time finding good archival images, I can honestly say that 99 percent of the good stuff we got our hands on ended up in the film.
IL: Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
SLC: The sequence where the Mary Queen of Vietnam Church held its first masses, marking the beginning of the community’s return, was especially resonant for me. I saw the Versailles residents help each other overcome their fear and doubt about returning, and I witnessed the camaraderie of families and neighbors pitching in to help each other in the time of need. Even though I’ve seen it dozens of times, this sequence, especially with our composer Joel Goodman’s excellent restrained-yet-moving piano score, still gets me choked up when it comes on the screen.
IL: What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?
SLC: The audience response has been overwhelmingly positive. Folks have come up to me after screenings to tell me how much they were touched by the film, which is incredibly satisfying for me as a filmmaker. I have shown the film on DVD to a couple of people featured in the film, and they seem to like it. However, I am looking forward to watching the film with them alongside a larger audience that is not familiar with the story. I’d love to see how our subjects react to the (hopefully enthusiastic) reactions from those audience members.
IL: Why did you choose to present A VILLAGE CALLED VERSAILLES on public television?
SLC: I cannot imagine another mainstream broadcast outlet choosing to present this film, which would likely have been dismissed by other broadcasters as a niche/fringe film with negligible audience. I think public television, with its commitment to serve underserved communities, has always been the ideal and only possible outlet for this film on TV.
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