Thursday, May 8, 2014

Documentary Filmmaker S Leo Chiang and "A Village Called Versailles"

Christal Cooper
*This feature originally was published in the Asian American Times ( on May of 2010.  It has been updated for this blog.

“A Filmmaker Called S. Leo Chiang.”

To celebrate Asian Pacific Heritage Month, PBS across the United States will rebroadcast A Village Called Versailles and Mr. Cao Goes To Washington starting this week.  The two films will be shown back-to-back on stations such as WGBH World (Boston), WHYY (Philly), and Alabama Public Television. 

PBS Northern California (KQED) is hosting a film and conversation event on Thursday, May 29 in San Jose to highlight the rise of Asian Americans in Silicon Valley politics and show clips from Mr. Cao Goes To Washington.  You can now watch Mr. Cao Goes To Washington on VIMEO and A Village Called Versailles on iTunes.

A Village Called Versailles first aired on Tuesday, May 25, 2010 via Independent Lens on PBS.  

Versailles is located in the eastern section of New Orleans and consists of the most dense ethnically Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam.

The name refers to “Versailles Arms,” the New Orleans East public housing project where a group of Vietnamese refugees was first resettled in 1975.  This unusually tight-knit group – most of whom are devout Catholics with roots in the same three rural North Vietnamese villages – fled from North to South Vietnam to escape communist persecution in 1954, and then came to New Orleans during the Vietnam War through the Catholic Church’s refugee-resettlement program.

Surrounded by lush wetlands and with a humid climate reminiscent of the Mekong Delta, the Versailles clan was grateful to find peace on the easternmost edge of New Orleans.  Fellow refugees, who had first settled in other parts of the country, moved to join their friends and family in Versailles, and the community grew steadily through the 1980s and the 1990s to 8,000 strong.

Like the rest of New Orleans, Versailles was devastated in the fall of 2005 by Hurricane Katrina and the floods that followed.  Many Vietnamese Americans in New Orleans East were evacuated and dispersed.  But despite all of the difficulties they faced, the community, led by Pastor Vien Nguyen of the Mary Queen of Vietnam Church, refused another forced exile.  “There has been a switch,” Father Vien says.  “Before Katrina, home was Vietnam.  After Katrina, home is here.”

Armed with this new sense of belonging, the Versailles Vietnamese returned just six weeks after Katrina to begin rebuilding.  By January 2006, more than half the community had returned, and the rest of the City began to take notice.

Ironically, it was the flood and its aftermath that catalyzed the transformation of Versailles from an isolated refugee community into an integral part of New Orleans.  Besides the work of community leaders such as Father Vien, Vietnamese-American activists began arriving from elsewhere in the country after Katrina to work with community members toward the goal of gaining unified political voice for the previously ignored Versailles community.  Soon after, they found a common enemy in the Chef Menteur Landfill . . . .

A Village Called Versailles directed, produced, and written by filmmaker S. Leo Chiang, is produced under Walking Iris Films, which is owned by Chiang and Mercedes Coasts, whom Chiang met while at graduate film school at USC School of Cinema-Television in 1995. 

Chaing’s work has been broadcast nationally on HBO, Discovery Channel, Travel Channel, Learning Channel, AMC, and others.  He holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and received his MFA in film production from University of Southern California. He also collaborates with other documentarians as an editor, or as a cameraman.  He is an active member of New Day Films, the social-issue documentary distribution co-operative.

Chiang was born and reared in Kaohsiung, Taiwan.  He and his family resided in a three-story building, where the first floor was his father’s medical practice, and the top two floors were the family’s residence.

“I’d come to watch him work, and help my mother, who was a nurse/pharmacist, in the pharmacy.  I wanted to be a doctor.”
Chiang comes from a very large and extended family – over 30 cousins, and almost all of them live in Kaohsiung, Taiwan.
“We lived pretty close to each other so we saw each other and played together often. “

By the time he started middle school the playtime ended and intense long hours of school began.  As an escape, and only when he had the extra time, he’d go to the movie theaters alone to watch movies.

“I remember watching my very first Jackie Chan movie, "Drunken Master". Also remember seeing the first Indiana Jones movie and thought it was the most amazing thing ever.”

By the age of 15, Chiang moved to San Jose, California where he graduated from high school and attended University of California, Santa Barbara, where he received his BS in Electrical Engineering.

“I was good with math and sciences. When I was at UCSB I also completed all the pre-med requirement classes and then took the MCAT. You can say that I fit the stereotype of the overachieving Asian American college student.”

         Throughout his college career, he continued to be a movie fan, especially the first three Indiana Jones movies,  “The Shining” (“which still scares the hell out of me”),  “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”, and the Hong Kong movie “Comrades, Almost a Love Story.”

         Once he received his degree, he got a job at Apple Computers in the San Francisco Bay area. 
         “I tested printer and digital camera software.  It was a good first job out of school working for a company whose products I loved and still swear by, but I can’t say that it was a very fulfilling experience.  I was there for two years.”

         After leaving Apple Computers, Chiang decided to take classes in something he enjoyed – the movies.  He began taking film classes at a local community college, and then interned for a filmmaker in San Francisco. 

         “The filmmaker told me I needed to apply to USC film school where she had graduated.  She told me she was writing me a letter of recommendation.  I went along with it, thinking I’d never get it.  I did, and I took that as a sign that I needed to change careers.  When I made the decision to go to film school in my mid-20s I felt like I’ve found my identity.”
         Chiang felt even more grounded when he met his partner of seven years, who is also an artist.

         “He travels a lot and has erratic schedules like I do, so we understand what each other go through.  I don’t know how my filmmaker friends who are parents do it.  It’s just so much work.”
         On August 29, 2005, just as Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Chiang was in the process of moving from Taiwan to Singapore for a film production of a travel show for Discovery Channel Asia.  Like everybody else, he saw it on the news, but he would never know how much Hurricane Katrina would impact his life, both career wise and personally.

         One of the areas to be devastated by Hurricane Katrina was a small, Vietnamese Village, called Versailles.  The community not only faced destruction from Hurricane Katrina, but within the next few months, they were expecting to be destroyed all over again, by turning part of their community land into a dump site for Katrina debris.

         It wasn’t until 2006 that Chiang learned about A Village Called Versailles.

I had been discussing another potential project with a geographer friend who had been studying the rebuilding of New Orleans East. She was just telling me about her work and her encounter with the folks in Versailles. She was talking about the elders protesting, about the young people stepping up, about the charismatic pastor who was one of the leaders of the community. When I heard the story, I thought that this could be a fantastic film.”

         Chiang knew he had to do this film, but he wasn’t still sure of what the main focus of the film would be on.

         “I thought about following the community as they move forward with all the ambitious projects they are working on. I thought about doing a film on just Father Vien. But the more I learned about the history of the community, about the parallel of their several displacement experiences, I realized that we have to look back to the beginning of the community and tell the story of how they got to where they are today.”

         The film took more than a year to film.  It took over 16 months just to edit the film.  And then there were financial difficulties, which only delayed the film even more.
         “We had to stop for months in the middle to wait for funding.”
         Creating the film A Village Called Versailles is more than just interviewing subjects, filming, or editing; but also fundraising.

         “I wrote grants after grants and got many rejections from all but one for the first year and a half. We finally got CPB money from ITVS and also money from Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities when I was already in post-production. The funding, as you can imagine, is a huge help. We also got money from Center for Asian American Media towards the end.”
         The post-production was the most difficult time for Chiang because the hours of footage needed to be tied together.

         “We had to make sense of the hours of material.  But of course, we were still missing a lot of material we needed, so a ton of energy and time went to finding archival footage.”

         Once the film was finished there was still more work to do.
         “We worked very hard getting film out there. Apply to film festivals. Connecting with organizations that may potentially be interested in the story. Traveling around to show the film. We are lucky that folks responded really well to this film so far, so it feels like the work is worth it, and we are doing this incredible story justice.”

         A Village Called Versailles is continuing to flourish.  Most of the individuals featured in the film are still living in the same area and doing the same things they were doing in the film.

         “Joel Waltzer still practices law in New Orleans.  Minh is still the head of the youth organization.  Mr. Ngo is still very involved in the community work.  Mimi left New Orleans and moved to Houston, where she worked as a medical translator.  Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis termed out of the City Council and is planning her next move.”

Visit for more information and to sing up for the e-newsletter.  Also, visit Twitter @versailles.doc, or go to Facebook for more information.

Also go to the Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation: MQVN-CDC website at  (  MQVNCDC is the non-profit organization of community activists who oversee all the development projects in Versailles, and visit Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association of New Orleans: VAYLA-NO (, the youth org.

Photo Description and Copyright Information
Photo 1
Title graphic for A Village Called Versailles.
Attributed to Ida Hands Studio.

Photo 2
Header for A Village Called Versailles

Photo 3
Advertisement poster for A Village Called Versailles airing on PBS on May 2010.

Photo 4
Religious procession in Versailles in 1975
Photo Attribution - Archdiocese of New Orleans

Photo 5
The Church

Photo 6
Header for A Village Called Versailles

Photo 7 
Father Vien Nguyen

Photo 8
“I will Rebuild” Sign

Photo 9
Katrina Dump Site located outside of Vietnamese-American community known as Versailles in New Orleans

Photo 10 ZA
Header for A Village Called Versailles

Photo 11Z
Header for A Village Called Versailles

Photo 12
S. Leo Chiang
Copyright granted by S Leo Chiang

Photo 13
S. Leo Chiang at the Versailles Lunar New Year Festival in 2009.
Photo Attribution – Andy Levin

Photo 14
Jackie Chan at the Cannes Film Festival on May 17, 2012
Photograph attributed to Georges Biard
CCASA 3.0 Unported License

Photo 15
Harrison Ford in The Raiders of The Lost Ark
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 16
S Leo Chiang
Copyright granted by S Leo Chiang

Photo 17
Movie Poster for The Shining
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 18
Scene from The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, in which the character Bauby, paralyzed, dictates one letter at a time by eye movement.  

Photo 19
Header for A Village Called Versailles

Photo 20
Header for A Village Called Versailles

Photo 21
Header for A Village Called Versailles

Photo 24
Header for A Village Called Versailles

Photo 25
Header for A Village Called Versailles

Photo 26
Religious procession in Versailles 1975
Photo Attribution – Archdiocese of New Orleans

Photo 27
Protestors line up outside of New Orleans City Hall to protest the shutting down of a toxic landfill in their neighborhood in 2006
Photo Attributed to James Dien Bui

Photo 28
Young Versailles community members participates in protest to shut down the Chef Menteur High Landfill 2006
Photo Attributed To James Dien Bui

Photo 29
Line of protestors

Photo 30
Joe Watzer – the only non-Vietnamese lawyer with an office in Versailles

Photo 31
Minh Nguyen

Photo 32
Cynthia Willard-Lewis

Photo 33
Community organizer Mimi C Nguyen takes the mic at a protest, 2006
Photo Attributed to Yoojin Janice Lee

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