Monday, March 30, 2015

4 Nights 4 Justice Returns to Tropic With "Big Charity" (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

4 Nights 4 Justice Returns to Tropic With "Big Charity"

Exclusive Interview by Shirrel Rhoades

In 1735 a French merchant sailor left money in his will to build a hospital for indigents in New Orleans. The next year a small cottage was erected to provide free medical care. Originally called L’Hôpital des Pauvres de la Charité (The Charity Hospital for the Poor), this was the first of six buildings, the last one built in the 1930s -- a million-square-foot art deco monolith known to the neighborhood as Big Charity.

"Big Charity: The Death of America’s Oldest Hospital" is a new documentary that will be playing at the Tropic Cinema on Monday at 6 p.m. This is the first film in the 4 Nights 4 Justice series, an
annual event sponsored by a grant from the Mike Dively Social Justice and Diversity Endowment.

Michael Dively, a former Key West resident and Tropic Cinema volunteer, created an endowment at the Community Foundation of the Florida Keys to promote social justice and diversity. For the third year in a row, Tropic Cinema has won a grant for its powerful 4 Nights 4 Justice program.

And producer Ben Johnson will be on hand to introduce the first film, answer any questions, and describe how a New Orleans community lost its medical services when the state chose a financing scheme over public interest.

Following Hurricane Katrina, Charity Hospital was shut down and used as a pawn to get FEMA to finance a new medical facility that at $1.2 billion is the biggest hospital project in the world. There are doubts the new Medical Center of Louisiana at New Orleans (MCLNO) will continue the tradition of free services for New Orleans’ needy.

Big Charity now stands empty, a shell of its former glory on Tulane Avenue at the edge of the Iberville Projects, New Orleans’ largest public housing development.

"Almost everybody in Iberville was born there," recounts Alexander Glumstrom, director of "Big Charity." People across the city called themselves "Charity Babies."

Glumstrom became interested in the hospital when working as director of the Boys and Girls Club across the street from it. "Charity Hospital, closed by that time, loomed overhead," the then-Tulane student explains. "The residents spoke of it with a strong love and affection that I had never heard expressed about a building. It was as if the hospital had been human -- a loved but deceased part of the family, whom they missed but still carried with them. I saw Charity Hospital as an integral part of the soul of the community, and I became mystified and enamored with the iconic, beautiful, yet abandoned space."

Ben Johnson, also a college student at the time, volunteered at the Boys and Girls Club. When the neighborhood started holding rallies to reopen Big Charity, he and his friend Alex grabbed a camera and began filming.

"We were trying to understand why the state had closed a major hospital at a great loss of healthcare to the neighborhood," says Johnson. "It was like filming a thriller."

Alex Glumstrom nods. "Looking for answers, I began to seek out nurses, doctors, administrators, police officers, soldiers, generals and politicians. I interviewed them one by one to put the debate on film, and they revealed an engrossing story that has never been fully told to the public."

Ben Johnson accompanied him on these shoots and later they were joined by Catherine Rierson, a young filmmaker from North Carolina. Together the trio co-produced the film, starting with funding by a group of interested doctors, later raising $50,000 with a Kickstarter campaign.

Video journalism seems a likely career direction. He and Alex are now working on some short films, one of them a documentary about a community in central Louisiana that is undergoing huge health risks from the huge petrol companies that are taking over the town.

Ben Johnson will be at the Tropic to answer questions after the film. "This is my first visit to Key West," says the tall 25-year-old. He’s eager to compare the Southernmost City with the Big Easy. The iron balustrades on Front Street may just look familiar.

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