POSTED Thu. Oct 16, 2014

Atmosphere

Behind the Scenes with 'Big Charity'
Sarah Ravits
Written by SARAH RAVITS
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Big Charity: The Death of America’s Oldest Hospital, a documentary premiering at the New Orleans Film Festival, explores the controversy surrounding the closure of the long-standing health care institution during the wake of Hurricane Katrina. It also serves as an educational and often-emotional tribute to the mission of the now-abandoned hospital, which for nearly 300 years, provided care for New Orleans’ indigent population after being founded by a French merchant who wanted to leave behind a legacy of compassion.

Despite limited resources, Charity saw more than 200,000 visitors to the emergency room during the time of Hurricane Katrina.

As one nurse points out in the film, Charity was “about love – that’s the culture of the hospital.” Subjects reiterate that no one was turned away, and the vast majority of patients were uninsured.

Following the storm, as medical supplies were depleted, workers employed compassion and faith, working around-the-clock and often sacrificing their own well-being for the sake of others who were far more ill. As Sanjay Gupta, medical correspondent for CNN who witnessed the aftermath, poignantly reflects: “Maybe it was medicine the way medicine was intended to be.”

Director, editor, producer and cinematographer Alexander Glustrom, who moved to New Orleans from Atlanta to start college the day before the hurricane hit in 2005, says the story is told by “people who lived it … It’s about the institution of Charity Hospital and the compassion and dedication of those who knew it best.”

Throughout the 63-minute documentary, which provides in-depth interviews and never-before-seen footage, it is revealed that the hospital closed due to forces that extend beyond physical hurricane damage. Now in 2014, as the brand-new, state-of-the-art LSU and VA hospital is being erected just blocks away from the abandoned hospital, intricacies involving the Katrina response from FEMA, profits and the ever-shifting landscape of politics and health care are all relevant topics of discussion in the documentary.

“The ultimate demise of Big Charity and the beginning of a modern medical complex; moreover, is at the heart of understanding New Orleans, its past and future,” says Glustrom.

He became interested in the topic as a college student at Tulane. As president of a student group, he facilitated a debate about the hospital to explain its history and to discuss the future of health care in New Orleans. “The day before the debate was set to take place, all of those in favor of abandoning the hospital mysteriously canceled, and the event could no longer take place,” he explains. “That’s when I realized how deep and sensitive of an issue this was.”

He also says that there’s a visual and spiritual component behind his motivation for the film. “I have always been captivated by abandoned spaces. I explore, climb and photograph them. I appreciate their solitude. I can feel the energy leftover from the years of activity that took place inside their walls. I love learning the history of their life and uncovering the mystery of what led to their death.”

Inspired to explore the issue further, Glustrom sought out nurses, doctors, administrators, police officers, generals and politicians. “They revealed a story that has never been fully told to the public.”

The film is a labor of love that took several years to complete, and it was, in many ways, financed by the community via an online Kickstarter fundraiser that welcomed more than 600 donations.

In between interviewing and film editing, Glustrom worked multiple jobs to support himself and his ambitious endeavor.

“There were times when I didn’t think I would be able to raise enough money to finish it,” he admits. “The Kickstarter was our biggest method of fundraising. It was awesome to receive that much from New Orleans and the Charity community.”

Much of the fundraising helped the film crew, which includes producer/composer Ben Johnson, producer Catherine Rierson and advising editor Tim Watson, with their licensing costs. “We had to go license content from over a dozen sources – some footage going all the way back to the ’20s and ’40s,” says Glustrom.

With the film, he hopes that audiences learn “the true story of Charity Hospital, and I hope it opens a dialogue about the future of public health care in New Orleans and Louisiana.”

The premiere is scheduled for Oct 21 at the Joy Theater with an additional screening the following day. Glustrom and his crew have invited former Charity nurses to walk down the red carpet as an additional tribute to their services. Big Charity will also be submitted to national and international film festivals.

Image courtesy of Facebook.

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