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'Big Charity': Death of an institution

Editor's note: Big Charity screens Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at the Joy Theater as part of the 2014 New Orleans Film Fest. Here's Brian Friedman's recent story on the movie.

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Saturday night, more than 750 former Charity Hospital employees gathered at the Joy Theater for a sneak peek of documentary film Big Charity. (Photo: Blake Bertuccelli)

Just three weeks after Hurricane Katrina, after a Herculean cleanup effort by doctors, nurses, and the United States military, the first three floors of Charity Hospital were open and ready for patients.

But mysteriously, the word came down from Governor Blanco and Louisiana State University, which ran the hospital, that Charity would remain closed. Nine years later, it remains shuttered. Why?

Big Charity, a new documentary set to be released this summer, explores the possible reasons and motivations -- the murky politics and the money -- behind the abandonment of the nearly 300-year-old hospital.

Directed, edited and produced by Alexander Glustrom, Big Charity includes never-before-seen footage and exclusive interviews to tell the story of Charity Hospital -- from its roots as a hospital for the poor, to firsthand accounts of healthcare providers and hospital employees who miraculously withstood the storm inside the hospital, to interviews with key players involved in the closing of Charity and the opening of New Orleans’ newest hospital.

“We took an objective approach and let those involved from all perspectives speak for themselves. And the story naturally unfolded,” said Glustrom, making his directorial debut. “The Charity community served as a constant resource, weighing throughout the production of the film.”

Glustrom’s interest in the Charity debate was sparked as a volunteer in the Iberville housing development, which neighbors Charity. In 2008, while a student at Tulane University, he organized a forum on the future of Charity. Just days before it was set to take place, all the speakers who supported abandoning the Charity building dropped out.

“I knew at that moment that there was something more there. So without knowing what I would do with the footage, I began filming,” he said.

Fast-forward six years, and this past Saturday night, more than 750 former Charity Hospital employees gathered at the Joy Theater for a sneak peek of the documentary film, also produced by writer and filmmaker Catherine Rierson and composer/musician Ben Johnson, who developed the film’s original score.

The event had the feel of a family reunion, as former Charity employees, some who hadn’t seen each other since 2005, caught up over drinks before the showing.

Once the film began, most of the faces of the doctors, nurses, and other staffers who were there drew a warm round of applause.  Others, such as Chancellor of LSU Health Sciences Center New Orleans Dr. Larry H. Hollier, drew some hisses.

But the final verdict on Big Charity from the audience was clear -- a standing ovation.

“Hopefully we’re going to make the public well aware of what happened at Charity Hospital,” said Mooney Bryant-Penland, a nurse at Charity during Katrina (whose father helped evacuate many patients via boat, a story captured in the film).

“I cried through the whole film the first time I saw it,” said ‘Miss’ Goldie Huguenel, who spent decades as a nurse at Charity. “The truth had to come out.

"It’s on film now, and people will know generations from now what happened and how we’ve loved one another and how we were all a team and during Katrina, and how not one nurse or doctor or respiratory therapist or nurse aid would leave that hospital until every patient was safely evacuated.

“That’s always been our goal - patient care,” added Huguenel, “so even though we won’t have our Charity any more and we will move on, our spirit will always be there, our bond and our love and our family.”

“Charity chose me,” said Glustrom, after the showing, “and I couldn’t be more happy that I got to meet these people. It’s given me an amazing opportunity to meet some inspiring people who are some true heroes in my eyes, and I think the compassion and dedication that you all showed is something that people in all professionals can learn from, and I just hope that this movie can help keep this spirit alive.”

*Note: The producers of "Big Charity" still need to raise more money to pay for licensing fees and other expenses before they can get the film out into the world.  To learn more or to donate, visit www.bigcharityfilm.com.

View images from the sneak peek in the gallery below.

Brian Friedman writes about New Orleans for NolaVie.