New Orleans lost many things in the wake of Katrina. Submerged in water and awaiting a rescue response that idled for too long, the city had many of its greatest treasures wiped away. However, it was not only the storm that stripped it of its finest institutions, but the decisions made by the government and corporations during reconstruction. While at its most vulnerable, The Big Easy underwent large swaths of privatization. “Out with the old, in with the new,” observes Alexander Glustrom, director of the anticipated documentary Big Charity.
Premiering on October 21st and playing on the 22nd as well, the film documents the ill-fated Charity Hospital, a beloved and iconic piece of New Orleans owned by the Louisiana State University System that was shut down in the wake of Katrina. Was the hospital, which had endured for nearly 300 years, undone by the most infamous storm of the century, or was something more cynical afoot? Interviewing a wide array of subjects ranging from Charity’s staff to superstar brain surgeon Sanjay Gupta, director Glustrom probes the confusion and sorrow felt by a community that saw a great beacon of hope extinguished.
The documentary shows the struggles faced by the staff during Katrina, Charity itself crippled by the flood that was unleashed once the levees broke. Understaffed, possessing limited resources and with help taking far too long to materialize, the doctors and nurses of Charity struggled to keep their patients alive, relying on instincts and tenacity. Once FEMA finally arrived to airlift patients to safety, it was already too late for some. However, the staff’s response to storm would prove to be a highlight in the hospital’s history, showing outstanding commitment and bravery in the most dire of situations. The satisfaction of a job well done would be soured shortly after when the hospital was closed for ambiguous reasons, despite having undergone an extensive restoration after the storm.
What happened to Charity is a sad reminder of the things New Orleans lost post-Katrina. For Alexander Gustrom, that state of confusion and loss was palpable. "I was aware of changes happening in New Orleans and was fascinated by the decisions that were made post-Katrina. I was filming every community meeting that decided what direction New Orleans was going to go,” he says. The filmmaker admits that, in the beginning, Charity was not the focus. “I thought I was making a documentary about the umbrella of privatization of New Orleans from public housing, school systems to the hospitals. I was just shooting things that were happening."
After years of filming, he began to realize that Charity’s fate encapsulated all of the changes in New Orleans he was trying to capture. It did not hurt that the director had an infatuation with abandoned buildings. “That's something I've been fascinated with ever since I was a kid,” he says, referencing a childhood spent exploring derelict structures. “I grew up in inner-city Atlanta, and this urban landscape had always been kind of like my playground.” New Orleans itself had a bevy of emptied buildings, but it was the lonely hospital left to rot that captured Alex’s imagination. “I think that was the thing got me to focus on Charity. The building itself had me fascinated.”
Getting the doctors, nurses and those touched by Charity to open up about the hospital’s untimely demise was not an easy task. "Some people did not want to talk about it,” Alex says. Charity remains an extremely sensitive issue, especially for those who still practice medicine within the Louisiana State University System. Witnesses fearing for their job safety was an evident factor. “You could tell that there had been some intimidation right off the bat,” Alex says. However, the director would earn the trust of his subjects, thanks in part to the intimate and earnest nature of his interviews, which largely consisted of him alone or with his producing partner, Ben Johnson. Once they would ingratiate themselves with an interview subject, they would be pointed in the right direction, “leading to another person, leading to another person.”
While Big Charity inhabits the perspective of those loyal to the now-expired institution, Alex himself admits to embracing the new hospital being built in its stead. “My personal opinion is that the new hospital is going to be great thing for New Orleans economically,” he says. “I think that Charity as a building was old and decrepit and needed to be changed. Whether you were going to renovate it or a have a new building, something needed to be changed.” However, he describes the process between Charity’s closure and the building of the new facility as ethically dubious at best. “It's not whether or not the new hospital is better than Charity, the question is was the process done in an ethical and transparent way? And I think the answer to that is no.”
Alex hopes that his film will serve as an reminder of Charity’s legacy and its mission to help those who needed care regardless of whether or not they could afford it. He also hopes that it will remind those running the new hospital to heed that mission. “Everyone’s worry is that the new hospital is going to be more focused on people who can pay for care or procedures,” he says. “My hope is that that is not the case, that the new hospital will maintain the spirit of compassion that Charity had. One of the greatest things this movie could accomplish is to urge the people running and working at the new hospital to not lose sight of the mission to take care of those who are most in need. I really hope that this film could help keep the spirit of Charity alive.”
Big Charity plays Tuesday, October 21, 2014, 6:30 p.m. and Wednesday, October 22, 2014, 6:30 p.m. at the Joy Theater. For more information on the film, visit the official website. For tickets, visit the New Orleans Film Festival website.
Rob Cameron Fowler is a writer, filmmaker and aspiring barber currently residing in New Orleans, LA. Raised in both the United States and the Middle East, he is a self-professed political junkie, cinema fanatic and purveyor of useless trivia. Follow him on Twitter.