A Village Called Versailles

May 25, 2010


S. Leo Chiang


About the Documentary

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 most other damaged neighborhoods 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 little help from the government. 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 the Chef Menteur landfill — mere miles from Versailles — to dump toxic debris disposal from Katrina without an environmental impact study.

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. Legal battles are waged at the state and federal level. Tired of being passed around, the community decided to go for broke, staging a protest at the landfill to shut it down. As elders and youth fought side by side — chanting in English and Vietnamese — Versailles finally found a political voice that could no longer be ignored. As neighborhood priest Father Vien Nguyen says in the film, “Now, no one would dare speak about rebuilding New Orleans without mentioning our community, because they know we are back. They know we are here.”


The Filmmaker

Leo Chiang
Born and raised in Taiwan, Leo Chiang immigrated to the United States as a teenager and received a MFA in film production from University of Southern California before beginning his filmmaking career. In 1998, the Directors Guild of America commissioned him, then a film student, to direct and edit Directing: How to Get There, for which he documented early careers of several well-known directors including Robert Wise, Norman Jewison, and Steven Spielberg. His other films include To You Sweetheart, Aloha, about the 94-year-old ukulele master Bill Tapia (PBS broadcast 2006, Audience Award at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival 2005); One + One, a documentary about mixed HIV-status couples (CINE Golden Eagle Award 2002); and Safe Journey, a short fiction film. Chiang is currently working on a documentary about Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao (R-LA), the first Vietnamese American member of the U.S. Congress and a Versailles community member. He also collaborates with other documentarians as an editor (True-Hearted Vixen, Recalling Orange County), and as a cameraman (It’s STILL Elementary, Ask Not). Chiang is an active member of New Day Films, the social-issue documentary distribution co-operative.

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