Parents, teachers, church leaders and activists—now is the time to tell people to tune in Tuesday May 25 at 10 p.m. Eastern (check your own local showtimes here) for an amazing 1-hour documentary, “A Village Called Versailles.” This story of a tiny Vietnamese village in New Orleans is like a 2010 version of the Jimmy Stewart classic, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
Here’s where this film connects with our lives: What’s the biggest obstacle in mobilizing our communities? People think there’s no point. What’s the toughest part of getting young people involved? They don’t think their voice matters. What keeps congregations from getting out of the pews and into the streets? Members don’t believe their churches really have any power.
With this film, PBS Independent Lens documentary series proves all three responses—wrong. If you’re looking for TV viewing options next week, you may glance at this choice and assume it’s just one more sad tale of Hurricane Katrina battering New Orleans. Again—wrong. This film is about people who simply would not allow these usual obstacles to keep them from saving their community, when their lives were threatened. So, what was the biggest threat to life in this Vietnamese-American community? It wasn’t Katrina. It was politicians who tried to dump tons of hurricane waste in their back yard!
Why PBS “A Village Called Versailles” Will Inspire You
Here’s one of the most memorable scenes in the film: When this Vietnamese community becomes mobilized and literally stands in the path of giant trucks full of toxic waste, a thuggish security guard confronts them and shouts: “Y’all can’t do this! This isn’t Vietnamese! This is America!”
Peacefully and courageously, these villagers prove to this guard—and now to the rest of nation—that they fully understand what it means to be American.
Here’s the essential background: For many generations, two Vietnamese villages south of Hanoi had been predominantly Catholic. In 1954, the populations of these villages fled from “North Vietnam” and resettled south of Saigon. Then, after Americans left the country in 1975, the Catholic church helped to relocate thousands of men, women and children in eastern New Orleans. The geography of their new little triangle-shaped village, known as Versailles, reminded many of them of Vietnam. You’ll see images here of a Vietnamese festival and a woman planting a lush vegetable garden that look like footage from an Asian-import film. In fact, they’re pure Americana.
As the documentary opens, this community’s experience of Katrina is much like that of other communities in southern Louisiana—except that they begin rebuilding much quicker than most others. On top of that, they immediately realize the need for professional community planning and soon have full-scale architectural renderings of a beautiful new community. Unfortunately, the rest of New Orleans doesn’t know they exist! These Vietnamese-Americans are shocked to discover that their little village didn’t even appear on Mayor Nagin’s map of the city! Perhaps that’s why Nagin uses his emergency powers as mayor to order the creation of a vast toxic dump within a mile of their village.
Like Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith,” these good, conservative, American Catholics follow every step in the civics textbook. They petitioned City Council and win a ban on the dump. But, Mayor Nagin ignores that ban. They petition federal officials, peacefully picket city hall, meet with the mayor—taking step after step right out of Civics 101—and, each time, Nagin circumvents their achievements. Finally, they take to the streets and peacefully stand in the path of giant trash haulers.
Now, here’s what is so inspiring about this story. In one video clip after another, we see that it really is a single Catholic congregation that mobilizes all of this action. Then, we learn that the true turning point is the moment that teen-agers in the parish take control. Eventually, these teens make the picket signs and help their elderly grandparents into the streets to block the trucks.
There’s so much in this single hour of film! Another major theme is the dominance of racism in American life. Clearly, some of New Orleans’ black leadership look down on these Asian Americans. The scene with the thuggish guard? Yes, it’s an African-American guard who jeers at the Versailles protesters.
But, in the end, there’s a candle-lit rally in which Vietnamese-Americans stand side by side with African-Americans to celebrate healing of communities. If you’re not misty eyed at that moment, check your heart—it must be stone. Finally, this little community campaigns for and manages to elect America’s first Vietnamese-American member of Congress: U.S. Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao.
Want to light up your community? Show them what it means to be real Americans. Get them to see “A Village Called Versailles.”
NOTE: This film has a life larger than this PBS broadcast. Here is the film’s own independent Web site. It’s possible to schedule regional showings of the film.
(Originally published in readthespirit.com)