S. Leo Chiang, born and raised in Taiwan, knew what it was like to be an outsider in the United States, so the seemingly inexplicable rebellion of previously docile Vietnamese residents in New Orleans was an ideal subject for this documentary director.
It took him more than a year to track down bits and pieces of film from unclassified archives at the University of New Orleans that could reconstruct the untold story of what happened to the 5,000 residents of the largest Vietnamese community outside of Vietnam after the 2005 Katrina hurricane wreaked havoc on that Louisiana city. For outsiders, the main victims of that storm appeared to be black and white; there was no mainstream media coverage of the isolated Vietnamese enclave that had existed in eastern New Orleans since the late 1970s. That regrettable omission is rectified in Chiang’s moving documentary A Village Called Versailles. It will be shown at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (Sat/13, 2:15 p.m., Sundance Kabuki, Tues/16, 9 p.m., Viz Cinema, Sat/20, 5:30 p.m., San Jose’s Camera 12). It is Chiang’s second feature documentary since he made To You Sweetheart, Aloha, about a 94-year-old ukulele master from Hawaii.
New Orleans had been just a uniquely glamorous city to Chiang who only learned about the Vietnamese residents from a geographer friend who visited there. He began to wonder then about what the sense of "home" is for an immigrant. For Chiang, home had been a small town in southern Taiwan where his Buddhist father was a doctor and shared a clinic with his wife, a nurse. Although his father wanted him to be a physician, Leo had no intention of following in their footsteps. For him, the jewel in the one-main-street area was the lone cinema. Nevertheless, the parents never discouraged him from his steady attendance there, watching melodramas from Taiwan and Hong Kong. For some obscure reason, he was mostly fascinated by the outtakes that ran when the credits were rolling. His movie attendance expanded when his parents sent him to live with an uncle in San Jose when he was about 15 or 16.
"I remember seeing some movies and wondering why I was there," Chiang, a slight, soft-spoken 39, recalled. "I was frightened by Amadeus, loved Indiana Jones, was puzzled by Godard’s Hail Mary and mesmerized by Schlondorff’s The Tin Drum. For some strange reason, I was obsessed by Ken Russell. I was fascinated that someone was making films out of this bizarre, campy fantastical stuff."
He certainly never thought of becoming a filmmaker. The practical thing was to get a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from UC Santa Barbara and begin his 10-year long struggle to become a citizen. "It was a long hard journey to get that passport, that citizenship. The test was the least of it. It’s all the bureaucracy that you go through. They lost my paperwork , I re-applied–but then it’s another six months or a year and you have to start over. But you’re an immigrant and you can’t complain. I started pursuing my citizenship since I was 16 and finally got my green card when I was 23 or 24."
For two years, he worked at Apple Computer and then a young filmmaker friend convinced him to apply to film school at USC. "I had never considered it a viable career choice, he said. "I didn’t think I was qualified," but he finally was admitted to USC and he began to think, "Someone wants me to go down this road."
Later when he learned about the Vietnamese community in New Orleans, his interest was piqued. "I don’t pretend to understand the trauma of refugee experience, but I think I can relate to the experience of moving somewhere so foreign, having to adjust to a new language, a new culture, without all your friends and to at some point be able to overcome all that strong sense of feeling that ‘I’m just here temporarily. I need to act like a guest’ –and then to finally to be able to transition to the feeling that I’m an American too. I may not be an American like someone who grew up in Kansas, but I’m every bit an American as anyone else and I need to claim that. So to me that was really colorful, claiming your American identity and finally settling roots and claiming this piece of land being figuratively part of oneself."
He was very impressed when he saw that happening to the Vietnamese community in New Orleans when they strongly objected to the city’s plan to impose a toxic landfill two miles away from their Versailles neighborhood without any safeguards or consultation. "To the extent that they went to fight, to speak up, to go out of their comfort zone and to challenge something that was previously intimidating to them was very moving to me. It made me very happy and that made me decide to make this film."
The "really weird thing," he said, "was I probably shouldn’t feel this way anymore because I’ve been living with the film for so long. Sometimes I’d be watching my own film and I would tear up which was really silly for me, but it would happen when I’m watching it with an audience and I could feel their energy in relating to that whole experience."
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