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Review: Big Charity 

Matt Brennan on the documentary about Charity Hospital, screening as part of the New Orleans Film Festival

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Though it begins and ends as a sentimental journey through the Charity Hospital system, director Alexander John Glustrom's documentary Big Charity ultimately emerges as a work of advocacy against disaster capitalism. From the workaday heroism of those stranded at "Mama Charity" in the days following Hurricane Katrina to the construction of the new University Medical Center (UMC), the film argues that the oldest continuously operating hospital in the United States fell victim not to flooding but to politics. Interviews with current and former public officials and hospital staff suggest the problem is not that Charity should have been saved, but that the valiant efforts of employees and volunteers already had saved it — only to see the closure go ahead anyway.

  After a flat nod at the institution's history, from the hospital's founding in 1736 to the construction of the structure on Tulane Avenue, which began in 1927, Big Charity focuses on the events of late August and early September 2005 with images of rising floodwaters and a recording of a woman's harrowing prayer.

  More arresting is the examination of what came next. Hundreds of people loyal to Charity banded together to reopen the hospital, repairing the damage and restoring the wards to working condition. In spite of the desperate lack of health care services in the city, its doors remained closed. In order to receive adequate federal money to fund the UMC project, "a decision was made somewhere higher up to scuttle Charity," one source says — despite evidence that fiscal responsibility and the public good would be better served by modernizing the existing facility. Big Charity features few proponents of the UMC and at times offers more conjecture than fact. But as a reminder that the end of Charity Hospital arose from man-made rather than natural causes, it's an important warning that "recovery" has consequences, too. Big Charity screens as part of the New Orleans Film Festival's Marquee Series.

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