DON'T DUMP: Protesters from a New Orleans suburb are the subject of 'A Village Called Versailles'.
The Sebastopol Documentary Film Fest brings the whole world home
By Michael Shapiro
Amid the devastation that was New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, one community managed to right itself: a Vietnamese neighborhood in New Orleans East. Six months after Katrina, when much of New Orleans remained a ghost town, Versailles was almost fully occupied. But just when Versailles' inhabitants were getting back on their feet and laying out a plan to transform their community by integrating small farms and a charter school, this enclave literally got dumped on.
S. Leo Chiang's film, A Village Called Versailles, screening March 6 at the Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival, traces Versailles' evolution from a sleepy, under-the-radar hamlet to a feisty, politically charged community.
What catalyzed this transformation? The mayor of New Orleans and his emergency decree to put a garbage dump on the edge of town. The Vietnamese leaders of Versailles asked the waste company to install a liner to prevent chemicals from leaching into their water and fields. They refused.
So when the dumping began, Versailles' people, led by a charismatic priest and youthful protesters, took to the streets to block the garbage trucks. Chiang skillfully shows how revolutionary this was for a community whose elders had been scarred by war and dislocation, a people who prior to this desecration had just wanted to avoid confrontation and be left alone.
An immigrant from Taiwan who now lives in San Francisco, Chiang, 39, sought to capture the evolution of the immigrant experience in the United States. "At first you feel like a guest," he says. "You must be polite; you can't ask too much." But after a disaster like Katrina, when you're on the verge of being pushed aside, "you need to claim your place."
Having their homes threatened, first by a natural calamity and then by Mayor Ray Nagin's decision to put a toxic dump on the edge of town, "gave the community purpose beyond doing well financially," Chiang says. "It was politically empowering."
A Village Called Versailles screens with Sebastopol resident Robert Hillmann's 1982 film Fire on the Water. Both directors will appear at their screenings during the Sebastopol festival, running March 5–7 and now in its third year.
Hillmann, a loquacious former New Yorker whose parents emigrated from Europe in the early 20th century, traveled to the Gulf Coast of Texas in the early 1980s. He captured a moment when Southern fishermen who'd spent generations trawling for shrimp clashed with Vietnamese immigrants seeking to make a living in the waters off east Texas. Hillmann scouted the Gulf Coast until he found the characters to tell the story and used cinéma vérité techniques to keep the film fast-paced.
His goal was to get beyond the "hot-button issues" of that time and make a "timeless" film about what humans do when confronted with the fear of "there not being enough to go around anymore."
Most of the white fisherman harass or condemn the newcomers, but one man, Jim Craig, provides them with docks where they can harbor their boats. Craig's description of the impending explosion between the white and Vietnamese fishermen gives the film its title: "It's like a fire burning to the water," Craig says. "There's no way to stop it."
Hillmann's goal was to make a film without judgment. "There are no good guys and no bad guys," he says, though some characters come off better than others. We meet a young Vietnamese fisherman who's trying to earn enough money to send his younger siblings to college; today, Hillmann says, one is a professor at Rhode Island School of Design.
Then there's James Stansfield, a boat mechanic and the leader of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. In one scene, Stansfield exhorts his minions to burn crosses, though he can be surrealistically pragmatic: "The price of diesel went up here—it's slowed down the cross-burning a bit. You only use 'em when you're serious," he says. "You gotta make all of 'em count."
The next scene shows Stansfield repairing the motor of a fisherman's boat—a Vietnamese fisherman. His pride in his work is so great, Hillmann says, that he always does his best work, even on an engine he views as belonging to the enemy.
One of the film's most poignant exchanges is between Stansfield and a fisherman who was a colonel in Vietnam and tries to convince Stansfield that they're similar. You can almost see Stansfield's dogmatic facade begin to crack.
And then we learn an astonishing secret about Stansfield, proof that the filmmaker has hung around long enough to gain his trust. The local leader of the KKK faces the camera and says he's not white, he's actually Native American.
Hillmann, who scored an Oscar nomination in 1991 for producing the documentary Waldo Salt: A Screenwriter's Journey, is on the Motion Picture Academy committee that nominates contenders for best documentary. A few years ago, the Academy considered removing these awards from the telecast, but Hillmann and others fought for recognition of documentaries to stay on TV. "It's an opportunity to find good work and give it the attention it deserves," he says.
A couple of years later, Michael Moore was using his award to stump for social justice before an audience of almost 1 billion people.
Hillmann says he's pleased to see a documentary film festival come to his little West County burg. It's especially valuable today because there are so many major media outlets "that co-opt everyone's attention," he says. "There's not as much time for quality stuff from the independent world."
And he likes that this festival is for North Bay residents, unlike Sundance and others that cater to the out-of-town crowd.
Jason Perdue, program director of the film festival, knows his audience is local, but he seeks a diverse and broad range of films that may not share the progressive political perspective of most Sonoma County filmgoers.
The festival has expanded its roster of events, with a workshop of documentary filmmaking and parties at the Hopmonk and Sebastopol Center for the Arts. A popular event from last year, pre-film dinners at Viva Culinary Institute, is making a return engagement. And unlike other festivals, where you have to buy an expensive pass, you can attend the Sebastopol festival ŕ la carte. Most films are $8. "We'd rather sell out than make an extra dollar," Perdue says.
Films screen Friday–Sunday, March 5–7, at the Sebastopol Cinema, Hopmonk Tavern, Viva Culinary Institute, Sebastopol Center for the Arts and the Youth Annex. All venues are within walking distance of downtown Sebastopol. Tickets are sold at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts (6780 Depot St.; 707.829.4797) and online. For more info, see www.sebastopolfilmfestival.org.
Highlights of the Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival
Parties Meet filmmakers and local artists at opening- and closing-night parties at Sebastopol Center for the Arts. The opening-night program, including the films and party, costs $20; closing night is $4 for the party. On Saturday night, the band Pellejo Seco plays in the Hopmonk's Abbey, $7.
Filmmakers at Screenings Many directors will be present for Q&As at their films. The one who's probably traveling the farthest to attend is Anna Rodgers, the Irish filmmaker of Today Is Better than Two Tomorrows. Set in Laos, the film traces the paths of two boys; one goes to school, the other becomes a monk. Oakville filmmaker Lucy Massie Phenix presents Don't Know, We'll See, a 2008 film about the life of master ceramicist Karen Karnes. Phenix will also appear at the showing of Word Is Out, a 1978 film in which gays and lesbians share their hopes and dreams.
Workshop "The Art of Shooting Docs" led by filmmaker Emiko Omori, who will show excerpts of her work and discuss techniques for creating films on Saturday at 2pm.
Latino Program Cuban films are featured followed by a lunch and discussion with the filmmakers of Salud! on Saturday at 11:30am.
Don't Miss Films Still Bill, a doc about Grammy-winning soul singer Bill Withers, explores the reclusive artist's decision to give up fame and fortune and seek a quiet life with his family. Withers wrote and sang "Ain't No Sunshine" and "Lean on Me." My Vietnam, Your Iraq, a film from a director who served 20 months in the Gulf of Tonkin, observes nine Vietnam vets as they watch their children deploy to Iraq. The film is paired with Republican Dad, made by an Obama supporter who films his conservative father's run for Congress. The film starts with politics but ends up being about the relationship between father and son.
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