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INDEPENDENT LENS: A Village Called Versailles

Airs Sunday, May 30, 2010 at 11 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: Mimi C. Nguyen (far left), Father Luke Nguyen (center) and Versailles youth celebrate victory at the Chef Menteur Landfill protest, 2006.

Residents of Versailles return to their neighborhood to check out the damage following Hurricane Katrina, 2005.
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Above: Residents of Versailles return to their neighborhood to check out the damage following Hurricane Katrina, 2005.

"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.

Hai Au Huynh (left) and U.S. Congressman-to-be Anh “Joseph” Cao (right) protesting outside of City Hall in New Orleans, 2006.
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Above: Hai Au Huynh (left) and U.S. Congressman-to-be Anh “Joseph” Cao (right) protesting outside of City Hall in New Orleans, 2006.

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.” By S. Leo Chiang.

Video

Video Excerpt: Independent Lens: A Village Called Versailles

Above: Welcome to Versailles, New Orleans--home to the densest ethnic Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam. For over 30 years, its residents lived a quiet existence on the edge of New Orleans. But then came Hurricane Katrina, the immense garbage piles and the shocking discovery of a toxic landfill planned in their neighborhood. Watch as they fight back, turning a devastating disaster into a catalyst for change and a chance to build a better future.

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