Review: Renaissance Village (NTI Upstream; 85 minutes)

The individual stories of those who lived through Hurricane Katrina get lost in the story of the event that has taken on a life of its own. Both sides of the political seesaw have used the tragic flooding of one of America’s great cities, and the subsequent displacement of its poorest residents, whether it be the Left’s seeing “Katrina” or “The People of New Orleans” as the prime example of Government indifference to the poor, or the Right’s blanket dismissal of the victims of the storm as those who were too lazy and stupid to seek higher ground.

Renaissance Village restores focus on the victims themselves – not as symbols, but as flawed, complex individuals, each trying to recover in their own fashion. The title refers to the name of one of the FEMA resettlement camps. FEMA had set up several areas where RV’s were supplied to residents, who would remain there, in theory, for a specific time until they got back on their feet. Renaissance Village was built in rural Baker, LA, just outside Baton Rouge, 91 miles from New Orleans. Federal guidelines in the Stafford Act mandate that groups must close after 18 months. Yet by 2007, 1700 of the original 3000 people still lived there. Most were African-American and from poorest wards of the damaged city.

Narrated by NO native Wendell Pierce and directed by Gabe Chasnoff, the film focuses on the frustrations and hopes of the residents, each in their own way trying to make sense of what was lost and to figure out how to rebuild from nothing. We meet the mechanic Paul, who is both disgusted by the government’s actions and by residents who feel sorry for themselves. Herbert sells candy and soda out of his trailer, since the nearest convenience store is miles away and few residents drive. He is later evicted from the Village for this activity.

There are also Thelma and Gwendolyn, who share with the film crew their common histories of food and racism. We watch as they cook and drink beer, each musing about plans to move out, plans that fall through. It is painful to see the women slowly lose some of their defiant hope as their options dwindle.

The star of the film, and the most powerful voice in the Village (aside from a foul-mouthed pre-teen who delivers some devastating lines at various points in the film) is Wilbert Ross, the de facto “President” of the Village Council. In addition to being the spiritual leader of the residents, exhorting them to stay strong and to unite against the increasing federal neglect, he also is a vibrant member of the card playing, drinking, dancing to Al Green heart of the small community.

Local lawyers and Catholic Charities do their best to help secure services, extensions of residency, job search and relocation. Even FEMA, rightly vilified as they are for their ineptitude during this whole crisis, tries to help, though it is obvious their representatives prefer the distance of trying to “help the people,” rather than hear the real needs of those people.

The film takes an unexpected turn when a resident dies from formaldehyde poisoning. Apparently the RV’s procured by FEMA had high levels of the poison, and since they weren’t meant to be lived in for so long, residents began getting sick. Also not helping was the fact that the heat and humidity was so oppressive in the summer months, many residents remained inside the trailers all day long, often with the doors and windows closed. Vain attempts at community organizing and public meetings produce only official grandstanding. Eventually each resident drifts away toward the next stage of their fate. The film leaves that fate open.

Shot over 13 months beginning in May 2007, Renaissance Village is a warts and all portrait of vulnerable but resilient folks, angered and traumatized by tragedy, who fight to rebound and reclaim a space they can call their own. This is as much a story of pride as it is about betrayal; in its light shed on the true lives of the victims of Hurricane Katrina (and its aftermath) it makes the invisible visible.
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