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In 1980, just before Ronald Reagan began disengaging the feds from the low-cost-housing business, Felton was working as a nanny for the director of the famous Hotel Beau-Rivage in Lausanne, Switzerland. One day she met King Hussein of Jordan and, after watching the royal offspring for a couple of days, "his majesty," as Felton still calls the late head of state, offered her a job as family governess.
Felton worked for Hussein and his American-born wife, Queen Noor, until 1983, when she returned to Houston with plans to finish school. But on her way to Boston College, Felton was rear-ended in an auto accident and spent a year in bed with a bad back. By the time she was on her feet again, she'd ditched her plans to be a theater major and had decided to combine her love of history and her interest in journalism to make documentary films.
In 1989, a year after undergoing spinal surgery, she graduated from the University of California at San Diego. Less than a year later, she was in Houston and got caught up in American General's aggressive effort to take control of the Fourth Ward, including APV, and build upscale housing. The opposition, led by Lenwood Johnson, of course, was fierce, and Felton saw a fascinating story taking shape.
"There was so much drama, even early on," she says. "But beyond the highest levels of national government, beyond all the debate over government policy, there was the daily suffering of people who were so vulnerable, yet who were fighting for self-determination."
Not surprisingly, perhaps, Felton often found herself part of the story. One day she'd be filming the teenage daughter of an APV resident dressing for the prom, and the next she'd be helping out the girl's mother by running errands or watching her kids.
But, if most APV residents liked and trusted Felton -- Simon calls her "the quintessential fly on the wall" -- her relationship with Lenwood Johnson was much more complex.
For reasons neither wants to discuss, Felton and Johnson experienced a falling-out a few years ago that has never been resolved. According to Johnson, he "had to back off of her for several years," after Felton refused the residents' request for greater control over her film.
"We wanted a contract," recalls Johnson. "If the residents' council was going to continue to invest its time and the support of its members, we needed something concrete."
Felton did not respond to their request. "As a journalist," she says, "I couldn't jeopardize my credibility by giving control of the film to one side."
Eventually, of course, it didn't matter. In 1994 the Republican party became the majority in Congress, stripped Henry Gonzalez of his chairmanship of an influential HUD oversight committee and, symbolically at least, gave notice of APV's imminent death.
But no matter what shape Felton's documentary eventually takes, those closest to the struggle will always wonder what might have been. And, perhaps, no film will be able to completely capture the real Lenwood Johnson.
"The turning point, in my mind, was this little window of opportunity where we were invited to participate in the planning process," Simon recalls. "We were in a meeting in my living room -- Christine was there, filming -- and I said to Lenwood and the others, 'We have what they don't have. We have ideas and a a vision of what can really happen here that Henry Cisneros just endorsed. Let's go to the table.'
"And Lenwood said no. If I was smarter, I would have realized at that moment, it really was all over."
For Felton, the story of APV is over, but her job is far from finished. She's applying for grants to fund the arduous process of editing 500 hours of video down to two, two and a half, tops. And technically she's still shooting and will be capturing snippets of APV's redevelopment until August, when she'll undergo another back surgery.
Clearly, the emotional climax of her film occurred on August 23, 1996. But through no fault of her own, her footage isn't cinematically perfect: Since Lenwood Johnson was nowhere to be seen, Felton was unable to capture his reaction to the actual demolition.
Still, his spirit of resistance lingered at the site. "What I found interesting," Felton says, "was that it took an eternity to make a dent in that damn building."
E-mail Brian Wallstin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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