Meet the Slamdance Filmmakers: Nailah Jefferson, Director/Producer, 'Vanishing Pearls'
Editor's Note: Vanishing Pearls opens in theaters April 18 in New York and Los Angeles through AFFRM.This article was originally published in conjunction with the film's premiere at Slamdance in January.
Despite growing up in Louisiana, filmmaker Nailah Jefferson knew little about the communities of fishermen who worked the coastline bringing in the catch that made the state famous for seafood. When the 2010 BP oil spill began to hit the shore, she didn't grab her camera, but when she saw that the media had gone away and the real problems were just starting, she jumped right in and made Vanishing Pearls.
Documentary: How did you get connected to this story?
Nailah Jefferson: I was born and raised in New Orleans. When the BP oil spill occurred, I remember watching the news and at that time, reporters were saying that there was an explosion, crew members were missing, but that the well was stable and no oil was leaking. Later, we would learn that those crew members had perished and the "stable well" would go on to leak more than 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Weeks passed and I followed the news closely, but I didn't have a desire to pick up a camera and make a film until I ran into Telley Madina, an old family friend.
At the time, Telley was working as executive director of the Louisiana Oystermen Association. He told me about the community of Pointe à la Hache, their fears of the spreading oil spill, and of his father-in-law, Byron Encalade, president of the Louisiana Oystermen Association. That weekend, I visited Pointe à la Hache for the very first time with just a flip cam in tow. Once I arrived I was captivated. The water, the landscape, the people—all were ravishing.
Byron and I talked briefly about the history—that those fishing families had been fishing Gulf waters for over a century—and just how big of a threat the BP oil spill and subsequent clean-up efforts were to his community. I wondered how I could not have known a place like this existed. I've always thought my city was this cultural jewel, because of the traditions—our food being a big part of that. I mean, the seafood New Orleans boasts about comes from communities like Pointe à la Hache. I was embarrassed by my ignorance, and also saddened that I was just being introduced to this place as it was on its way to vanishing. I knew we had to tell their story—if not to help save them, then to at least let the world know a place like this once existed.
D: There seems to be a trend, and I think it's a positive one, of mixing the political, historical and persona in documentary form. How difficult was it to balance these different threads in this complex tale?
NJ: It wasn't as hard as you may think. In Louisiana, the fishing industry is very political. When I interviewed Ronnie Duplessis, he made the comment that he volunteered to serve his country in Vietnam, came home to make an honest living as a fisherman, and, as he put it, "The biggest spoke in his wheels has been the government." That's a very telling statement from a proud veteran. So, this industry that is very tied to nature and seems to be so far removed from urban city centers and political fare is quite political. That is so for a couple of reasons, but the most overwhelming is money. Seafood is big business in Louisiana, so it is political whether these fishermen like it or not. Once offshore oil and gas drilling began in the early 1900s, and these two industries began sharing the waters, it became even more political and has been ever since. So, in Vanishing Pearls, there weren't really threads I had to weave together; it's just the fabric of the story.
D: What role do you see documentary filmmakers playing in the new world of media, where stories move so quickly, and the media is stretched so thin?
NJ: Documentary filmmakers can continue to carry the torch in a sense. I see the two worlds working together, where the media brings issues to the public's attention, but documentaries see them through. There is much more freedom in the documentary world to tell full, truthful stories. We don't have to bend to the pressures of splashy headlines and daily ratings, like the media does.
We can keep stories alive, like the effects of the BP oil spill on Gulf Coast communities, and see them through to the end. Because this particular story is no longer in the news and images of oil no longer inundate our TV screens, many think it's over; recovery has occurred and the Gulf is back to normal. That's not true. I believe it is my responsibility to convey that to the public...perhaps until it is true.
D: Can you tell me anything else about the film that you want people to know?
NJ: I want people to know that Gulf Coast recovery is an ongoing story and that things have not gotten better for the fisherfolk of Pointe à la Hache; in fact, they've gotten worse. Because of these circumstances, we want Vanishing Pearls to be more than a film, but rather, the springboard for a movement to help save these communities.
Michael Galinsky is partners with Suki Hawley and David Bellinson in the award-winning production studio Rumur. Their film Who Took Johnny premiered at Slamdance. They are currently working on a film about the connection between stress and pain.