Over the next few days, you’ll read and hear a lot about the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig that exploded on April 20, 2010, gushing hundreds of millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and creating the worst environmental disaster in our nation’s history. What you might not hear a lot about are the stories of the black fishermen in the southernmost tip of Louisiana who’re among the worst impacted by the spill. New Orleans filmmaker Nailah Jefferson hopes to correct that by elevating their stories through her new film “Vanishing Pearls,” which opens today in New York City and Los Angeles. The plight of these black oystermen (a subject first covered nationally here at Colorlines) has been an ongoing battle, beginning with when oil and gas companies began drilling in the waters they fish from decades ago. Over time, these fourth- and fifth-generation fishermen had already suffered through a number of previous disasters, including Hurricane Katrina. Jefferson spent the last three years following these men and their families as they’ve coped with just the latest disaster. After her film was featured at the Slamdance Film Festival — a showcase for films that the Sundance Film Festival slept on — it was picked up by acclaimed filmmaker Ava DuVernay, whose African-American Film Festival Release Movement (AFFRM) company will distribute it. We caught up with Jefferson by phone to discuss her experience in creating this important film.
So how did you learn about these oystermen?
I tell people all the time that while it’s about 50 miles from New Orleans, Pointe a la Hache is really a world away. Even though I grew up in New Orleans I had never really visited these areas. When I went, I was totally enamored by the place. I had never thought about who caught our seafood before, or that these were family businesses that went back generations. When I realized that this was a place standing on its last legs, I knew it was a story I wanted to capture and not just for the sake of telling the story, but also to try and be helpful to this community. I hope that’s what “Vanishing Pearls” does. It’s why we decided to stick around and not just capture the first six months after spill. There hasn’t been a recovery for these oystermen on an economic or ecological level.
As you stayed on beyond the six months, did you ever worry about the so-called Gulf Coast Fatigue, people supposedly tiring of hearing about disasters in this area?
Well, we were also up against BP’s million-dollar ad campaign saying the Gulf has recovered, and then trying to position themselves as the victims here. So it was an even steeper climb than just fatigue. Also, I think a lot of people assume these fishermen have been paid, or they’ve been overpaid. That’s a perception we found a lot of people had, even within the region and definitely outside the region. We definitely want to overcome these false perceptions that BP has been successful in putting out there, and let people know there are many communities that haven’t been paid. But it’s not just about the money. It’s about the culture and heritage — the oystermen just want to go back to fish. Oyster harvests are down 71 percent from before the spill in 2010, so that shows they have not returned to any normalcy in Pointe a la Hache.
In terms of audience, who were you speaking to with this film?
I think this is for anyone who like myself had a respect for the environment but wouldn’t call themselves environmentalists, people who have a heart for people and love for history and storytelling. So, definitely someone who is inquisitive and who very much has a respect and curiosity for history. But also someone who is very much interested in how these situations played out. [People who want to know] what really happened four years later, [if] the money thrown at it went to the appropriate people [and if] the parties responsible for these disasters were held accountable?
How did you support yourself financially all this time while making the film?
When I came into the project I had someone who said they were interested in being an investor. About six months out, that fell through but I was too into the story to give it up by then. I had to take out two loans, and then we were able to get donations. Then we found an investor, thank God, in Dean Blanchard, who carried us from 2012 all the way until this deal with AFFRM. It’s been hard, but it’s nothing I would not do again in a heartbeat. it all actually worked out in my favor, because when I got the call from Ava [DuVernay] she said, ‘OK, who did you get money from and who owns this film?’ I said, ‘Well, I do.’
There have been so many villains for these oystermen, from BP to the oil and gas industry to the state of Louisiana itself. How were you able to pick which parts of the story to tell?
That was a struggle. There were so many different components to this story, and unfortunately you can’t add everything or else this film would never end. It’s so funny because the fishermen would say, “Well, you can come back and do a part two.” [Laughs.] But, of course, there was a big issue with the [Mississippi River] freshwater diversions of the early 1990s, like the Caernarvon diversion that wiped out a lot of the private oyster beds that these guys had on the east bank of the [Mississippi] river. That’s a story I wanted to include. From what Mr. Byron Encalade [president of the Louisiana Oystermen Association and key character of “Vanishing Pearls”] has told me he thinks there are more coming and that it might be a losing battle. So right now their focus is on mitigation.
Hear more about Nailah Jefferson at my blog over at Grist.org
For more on the Louisiana black oystermen check out this photo gallery from Shawn Escoffery, which ran in Colorlines shortly after the BP spill. Also read Race-Baiting the Gulf to Exploit Black and Brown Workers and Black Gulf Fishers Face a Murky Future.