Though he’s called New Orleans home for the past ten years, Alex Glustrom’s heart is in Atlanta. This year the NOLA-dwelling ATLien was able to bring his two favorites cities together at the Atlanta Film Festival, where he screened his documentary feature Big Charity. Glustrom went from a kid who grew up seeing movies at the Plaza Theatre to having his flick screened, not once, but twice at the ATLFF, making it the only one granted an encore. The visual artist, photographer, and now accomplished filmmaker sat down with You’ve Been Noted to talk about the story behind his doc, loving two cities, and the South’s bubbling film industry.
YBN: So you moved to New Orleans the day before Katrina. Wait, what?! What led you there, and why did you decide to stick it out?
Alex: I was going to New Orleans to start my freshmen year of college. I had actually just moved into my dorm room the same day the city-wide mandatory evacuation was called. So after my parents dropped me off, one day before the storm made landfall, I called them up and asked if they could turn around and come back to pick me up. Thinking I would be back in a couple days, I only brought my toothbrush and a change of clothes. I actually didn’t return to New Orleans for another three months.
What led me to decide on New Orleans for college was the culture. I visited my longtime friend Julian Sosebee, who had already begun school there. He took me on a tour through the city and I knew right away that I didn’t need to make any other college visits. It is unlike anywhere I had ever experienced. The spirit, the traditions, the attitude, the people, all of it drew me in immediately.
YBN: How did you go from taking your curiosity for Charity Hospital’s history to making a documentary? Was that always the plan?
Alex: As soon as I returned to New Orleans, I quickly saw major changes happening to the city. There was widespread privatization: public housing developments were being demolished and redeveloped into private mixed income developments, public schools turned into privately run charter schools, and the major public hospital, Charity hospital, didn’t reopen. It was obvious that those in power were using the hurricane and the confusion that ensued as an opportunity to restructure the city. I just began shooting everything I could. First, I thought I would make a three part film about privatization in public schools, housing and hospitals. But then I began to tighten my focus on Charity, mainly because of my obsession with abandoned buildings. Growing up in the city of Atlanta and with a background in spray painting, I was accustomed to exploring the urban environment and have always had an obsessive fascination with abandoned buildings. I started a volunteer program that brought university students to the Boys & Girls Club inside the Iberville public house development, the last surviving projects in the city. The development sat only a few blocks from Charity and I would look up the hospital constantly. I began asking questions, and it was the residents of the Iberville that first taught me about what Big Charity meant to the city.
YBN: Talk about the process of compiling the footage and interviews. A lot of your subjects talk about how difficult it was to discuss the topics in the film, and some were even fearful of the consequences. How were you able to build that trust and get those untold stories?
Alex: It helped that I shot a lot of the interviews either by myself or with only my producer, Ben Johnson, present. We were two young filmmakers without much equipment, and were very non-intimidating. But even so, many people we tried to speak with had been threatened and were scared that they would lose their jobs. But when we learned of people’s fear in speaking with us, it only energized us even more. Ultimately, the credit should go to the characters in the film who had the courage to speak the truth, despite the fact that they were putting their career on the line. I am very grateful for their bravery and desire to set the record straight.
YBN: Have you or anyone on the film’s crew been threatened?
Alex: We have not been directly threatened. But there have been a couple times where we have definitely felt intimidated, discouraged from filming or experienced attempts to influence us into changing the message of the movie.
YBN: Are their parallels between Charity and Grady here in ATL?
Alex: Absolutely. They are like sister hospitals. To name a few similarities: they both served, still serve in Grady’s case, a main and crucial role in caring for the city’s indigent and uninsured residents. They are both massive structures in the middle of the downtown of each city, they each had world class trauma centers, and they both have faced many funding and infrastructure challenges over the years. There is also a sense of pride associated with each hospital, among both patients and staff alike.
YBN: Speaking of your local ties, you went from a kid who went to the Plaza Theatre to a filmmaker whose feature was the only one screened twice for the ATLFF in that very theater. What was that experience like?
Alex: It was amazing. I had my 13th birthday party at The Plaza, so to show my first film there was a true honor. And then to have my friends and family in the audience, to have my long time friend Gavin Godfrey hosting it; it was a really special night for me. Definitely made my parents proud!
Plaza Theatre via Alex’s Instagram
YBN: You’ve screened the film in other cities, but were you more nervous about presenting this in front of the home crowd?
Alex: I’ll never be as nervous as the first time we screened it to the former Charity staff. Their approval was and still is the most important thing to us. Showing it in Atlanta was more exciting than nerve racking. It was nice for some old friends, who haven’t seen this side of me, to be able to know more about who I’ve become since moving to New Orleans.
YBN: What’s your take on ATL becoming this Hollywood hotbed? Aside from the ATLFF do you think the area’s a good place for budding filmmakers to be?
Alex: I think it’s a great place for filmmakers to be. Louisiana is another place that offers similar tax incentives for blockbuster films and TV shows to shoot there, so I’m a little familiar with seeing that big budget film culture coming into a city. Aside from providing jobs and economic growth, that spirit also fosters and inspires independent filmmakers. So even though my movie, and most locally shot ATLFF films, were too small to qualify for those tax credits, it is nice to feel like you’re in a town that supports and participates in the film industry. It steps everything up, there are more resources and opportunities, it makes the film festivals bigger, the local talent greater, and gives the city more of an overall creative energy.
YBN: At every one of your screenings you dedicate the film to and make note of those folks who worked for or had ties to Charity. For the folks outside of Louisiana, what should we take away from the film, aside from the fact that money and power can come at the expense of human life?
Alex: Everyone can take away something a little different from the film depending on your circumstances. For healthcare workers across the country, I know a lot of them relate to and can learn from, the human and emotional aspect of healing that Charity was so well known for and especially exhibited during Katrina. In major cities like Atlanta, DC, Chicago and New York, there are other “dinosaur hospitals” that are similar to Charity. Many of these facilities are facing extinction or, at the very least, dealing with serious financial challenges. It is important for people in those places to see what happens to a city when you lose your major public hospital, so they can better understand the importance of these facilities and the consequences of their absence.
I also hope that people, regardless of where you live, can better understand the common theme of those in power making decisions that disproportionately hurt marginalized communities. Hopefully bringing light to stories like this will help make these situations happen less often in the future.
Most importantly, I think that if everyone could learn a little bit from the compassion and dedication that Charity’s staff exhibited everyday, and apply that to their own daily lives, our society would see a major change for the better.
Alex’s Best of Atlanta List
Man, I haven’t lived there in ten years, so I feel like my list is kinda weak! but I would say:
people – my entire Atlanta family, that includes the friends I’ve grown up with
places – the roof of the abandoned atlanta medical arts building
events – Christmas time because that is when I’m always home. I am proud to say that I haven’t missed a single xmas since I left
Gavin Godfrey is the Men’s Style Editor for You’ve Been Noted. (interview)
Photos provided by Alex Glustrom via bigcharityfilm.com.