I recently caught up with Gabe Chasnoff. His remarkable, new documentary, Renaissance Village, is about life in the largest of the 200 RV parks created by FEMA, in the aftermath of Katrina.
Tell our readers how this film came about, Gabe.
Eighteen months after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the Gulf Coast, Lou Karsen, my co-producer, and I traveled to Louisiana. Coming from the Midwest we had no idea what to expect. Our knowledge about the storm and its aftermath was based upon what we had seen on the news and read in the papers.
But even the best news footage could not convey what we experienced upon our arrival: the stench of rotting sewage, the overpowering humidity, the absolute desperation that seemed to exist in everyone we met. We couldn't believe that after nearly a year and a half, parts of New Orleans had still not been cleared of debris and repaired so that people could return to their homes.
Originally, our plan was to do a film on the post-Katrina healthcare situation. We had heard that it was in a shambles before the storm but now, after the hurricanes, it was completely defunct. We linked up with the Children’s Health Fund based out of New York. They had established and funded a mobile medical unit through Louisiana State University. We traveled with their team of doctors and social workers on what was fondly known as the Blue Bus, documenting their work in what felt very much like a war zone.
We didn’t even know Renaissance Village existed when we began our initial pre-production. We happened to visit, and spoke with a couple of the park residents. We decided that this was the real story – 1700 storm victims crammed together in the largest FEMA trailer park established after the storm.
Besides for totally changing the focus of your film, how did it go?
The entire production of Renaissance Village took about 18 months from our first trip down to Baker, Louisiana in May 2007, to the final cut. During that time, Lou and I went back and forth from Chicago to Baton Rouge about five times. We were down there for two and half months in the summer of 2007, the hottest I have ever experienced in my life. Until the break of the formaldehyde story, life inside Renaissance Village was anything but eventful; we spent many hours there just waiting, watching, and listening.
It was absolutely unbearable filming out in that heat! I have no idea how the residents survived in those tin trailers filled with formaldehyde and with poor A/C. FEMA’s recommendation for ventilating those trailers of formaldehyde fumes was to open all of the doors and windows. This may sound like a plausible solution for venting poisonous air, but it also meant that people were unable to keep the cold air from the air conditioning inside their trailers. Walking around the park that summer, I noticed many closed doors. I guess the residents were willing to take their chances with formaldehyde poisoning rather than compete with the stifling heat and humidity.
What were you aiming for?
I wanted this film to be as objective as possible. The news media had already chosen its heroes and villains in this ongoing saga. It was not my job to perpetuate these characterizations. In fact, FEMA was not all bad and the residents of Renaissance Village were not all good. From the outset, I wanted the viewer to be an active participant and independent judge. I, to the best of my ability, would simply present the facts.
Did you follow up with any of the former residents of Renaissance Village?
We wanted to send copies [of the film] to everyone who was involved but we haven’t been able to track them down. Many of the residents in Renaissance Village did not own cell phones or couldn’t afford the monthly payments, so once they left the park we had no way of knowing where they went or how to reach them. As far as I know, Wilbert [the president of the park] is the only one who has seen it. He loved the film; he thought it was an extremely accurate portrayal of the events going on in Renaissance Village.
How has your film been received, so far?
Renaissance Village won an Award of Merit from the Indie Fest competition, it is premiering at the San Diego Black Film Festival on January 31 and is playing at the Texas Black Film Festival in Dallas, February 5th. It’s also making its international debut at the International Film Festival Egypt in April.
We’re running the festival circuit now, trying to build some buzz. Ultimately, we’ll try to get some distribution and television time. We’re also developing a curriculum that can be used as a learning guide for educational institutions interested in using the film as a social issues teaching tool. And of course, the DVD is on sale on our website, www.rvthefilm.com.
I’d like to say that it was truly a joy to make this film. The residents of Renaissance Village welcomed us with open arms and an unbridled enthusiasm to share their stories. They reminded us that Hurricane Katrina, FEMA trailer parks, and formaldehyde poisoning, are more than just catch-phrases on the ten o’clock news. They are stories that involve the lives of ordinary people who are struggling to reclaim some semblance of a normal life.