Nailah Jefferson’s powerful documentary Vanishing Pearls examines the effects of the oil and gas industry on a small African American oyster fishing community in Louisiana’s gulf coast. After a world premiere at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival, and theatrical openings in New York and Los Angeles, Vanishing Pearls will screen at the Indiana University Cinema for one night only on Thursday, June 5 at 7pm.
Last month IU professor and New Orleans native Eileen Julien talked to Jefferson about her film. Below is the portion of their conversation that took place over email.
Eileen Julien: You have said that you wanted to tell the story of Pointe à la Hache—“if not to save this community, then to let the world know a place like this once existed.” Tell us about this place. What is so special and compelling to you about Pointe à la Hache?
Nailah Jefferson: I grew up in New Orleans, just about 60 miles away from Pointe à la Hache. Even though the distance between the two doesn’t seem that far, the way of living is a world apart. Pointe à la Hache is a community that is still very much dependent on the land and water. It’s been that way for over a century. The families that still live in Pointe à la Hache were some of the first African American and Creole families to settle there following slavery. They gained their independence through fishing and farming and were able to build a sustainable community. To this day, the community still literally grows and harvests much of its own food. That’s not because technology passed them by. It was and still is a choice of many to stay in the “country”, as they refer to it, and live a simple life where legacy and tradition trump technology and innovation.
What I found to be most interesting though, is that they harvest my seafood. I never knew it was these small families businesses, just 60 miles away, that were responsible for the seafood I enjoyed at home in New Orleans all my life.
EJ: Is there a scene or sequence of the film that you find especially satisfying and why so?
NJ: There are two scenes I’m quite satisfied with. The first would be the history of the African American oystermen and their struggle to become independent. That’s a story that somehow eluded the Louisiana history books. So, for the first time we are bringing that story to the masses. The second would be when oyster season finally opens. The season finally reopened in October 2011, 17 months after the BP Spill. I’d heard the fishermen’s stories about harvesting oysters, but never witnessed it. So, going out on the water with the guys just before dawn and seeing the sun rise on the bay was a magnificent sight. Finally reaching our destination and watching them, after over a year of waiting, drop dredge and get back to work, was a thrill. I think everyone on the boat that day was experiencing a mix of emotions – excited, nervous, hopeful, scared. That was probably my favorite shoot.
EJ: Film scholars claim that documentaries don’t just “tell the truth” or give objective testimonies: they actually present a point of view, they make arguments. What arguments does Vanishing Pearls make?
NJ: Vanishing Pearls definitely does make an argument. I’d say the argument is that the community of Pointe à la Hache, contrary to BP’s reports, has not economically or ecologically rebounded from the devastation caused by the BP oil spill. Furthermore, BP has not taken full responsibility for the devastation caused by their spill and unfortunately our elected officials are not assuring that BP will be held accountable so that communities like Pointe à la Hache and others still suffering along the Gulf Coast get justice.
EJ: Your film tells a Louisiana story—about family, the environment, ways of life, and even the history of Louisiana racism. It is a very local story, but would you agree that it transcends its place of locality, that it is also the story of many communities around our “globalized” world?
NJ: Yes, I believe Vanishing Pearls does transcend Louisiana. In many places throughout the US and beyond, oil and gas companies are allowed to exploit natural resources, ravage lands and put communities at risk all for the economic advancement of those companies. This happens from Russia to Nigeria, North Dakota to Ohio. Unfortunately, the story of big oil and gas’s abuse is a global one and not just the story of Pointe à la Hache fishermen as told in Vanishing Pearls.
EJ: What are the challenges and joys of documentary filmmaking? Is documentary filmmaking becoming more important?
NJ: There are many challenges of documentary filmmaking, but they are far outweighed by the joys. Raising money is a challenge, getting people to buy into your vision is a challenge, but connecting with your characters and being enlightened by new subjects and different ways of life is such a joy. Relating to people and learning that no matter how different we may seem or live or speak or look, we all have one common goal and that is to be happy. That realization was renewed every day that I got to talk to the people of Pointe à la Hache, and for that I am very grateful. Documentary filmmaking is very important because as we all become more connected to our devices and phones and various pads and tablets, we are truly less humanly connected. Documentaries reinforce that human touch and the experience of engaging people. They reinforce the human connection that we are losing.
EJ: Are there particular hardships and advantages to being a black female director at this time?
NJ: I actually think there are fear mongers out there who try to tell you it’s hard. They’ll try to tell you that your project can’t be too black or too foreign to the status quo because no one will watch or relate. But again, the point of documentaries, at least one of the points, is to open people up to another perspective, one they’ve never seen or contemplated. So, my belief is that the more uncommon or unfamiliar the view, the more you actually have to offer. In my book, being a minority, both black and female, is advantageous.
Note: special thanks to African American Film Festival Releasing Movement’s Mercedes Cooper for facilitating this interview.
Check out the film’s trailer here: