A Story of a David taking on Goliath
“Three years after the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the small fishing community of Pointe à la Hache, Louisiana is on the brink of losing their livelihoods. They band together to confront multinational oil and gas company BP and to fight for justice, accountability and their very existence. The current story begins with ‘Goliath’, BP and the 2010 Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster, which destroyed the livelihood of many Louisianans. Encalade and a small tribe of diverse Louisianans fight through legal channels and any other way they can to find justice and accountability.”
–From the documentary synopsis of Nailah Jefferson’s”Vanishing Pearls”
by Lovell Beaulieu
For Nailah Jefferson, the director of the recently-released documentary “Vanishing Pearls”, it was all a matter of selling a story. It was a story of African-Americans and their special fishing village along the bayous of southeastern Louisiana seen and told through Jefferson’s eyes.
The assignment was an awesome one. Jefferson, who grew up in Uptown New Orleans, had never been to Pointe à la Hache before beginning this project. Like most New Orleanians, she enjoyed the seafood associated with Louisiana but rarely gave a thought as to its origins, other than the Gulf of Mexico, which received extensive national media coverage and attention from BP after the infamous oil spill more than three years ago.
“It’s not as if I thought it was just the White people on boats,” she says. “But I myself was ignorant (of) these small (Black) fishing communities, such as Pointe à la Hache. We’re city folk. We just don’t venture into the bayou. We don’t pay attention. They pour so much into the seafood. These communities contribute.”
“Vanishing Pearls” captures the struggle of a people, with business owner and fisherman Byron Encalade and his call for justice amid devastation as the focal point.
“Come hell or high water!” That’s one of the first statements Encalade made when we had our initial interview in 2010,” Jefferson says in a Q&A about the film. “He was referring to the lengths to which he would go to save his community of Pointe à la Hache. I didn’t know it then, but we were just beginning a three-year plus journey to create “Vanishing Pearls”, and ‘come hell or high water’ would become this film’s battle cry. It’s been a life-changing experience making “Vanishing Pearls”, and as the adventure comes to a close, I must say that I am humbled by the opportunity to bring this community and their fight to the masses.”
In that same interview, Jefferson, who wore the hats of director, producer, editor and writer, talks about how, when she first visited Pointe à la Hache in the spring of 2010, she had no idea what was ahead. She only knew she had to capture it.
“The people, the landscape, the mood, the sounds, even the smell intrigued me. My initial thought was that we would shoot for one year, but one year into production, I realized the story was just beginning.”
To be sure, that “beginning” became a very personal one.
“I got to know these people. I was motivated to work on this project,” she says.
Members of The New Orleans Tribune’s staff also visited Point a la Hache less than two months after the Deep Water Horizon accident, interviewing a number of fishermen, including Encalade whose ominous forecast then seems to have become a reality.
“It’s horrible,” Encalade said in a Tribune interview in the late spring of 2010. “This is going to be something we’ve never imagined. It doesn’t look good for us at all.”
And the oyster beds, especially in the Lake Pontchartrain Basin, have not come back, Jefferson says, despite upbeat claims by BP and reported on major media such as CNN and the Wall Street Journal. The oil industry is able to do that because it has “deeper pockets.”
To be sure, this community would have every unimaginable and unfriendly environmental weapon thrown at it by BP, from a failure to recognize the damage its oil spill caused to the fishing village to a total dismissal of the community’s right to exist. Jefferson would merely tap into her educational roots to complete and market the project.
Where many White filmmakers often tap into the cultural components of the African-American experience, especially in the city of New Orleans with its musical and Mardi Gras Indian scenes, Jefferson plunged deep into the small fishing village that has seen its very livelihood and existence threatened and compromised, if not obliterated. She tackled a challenging, complex news story with the confidence and stamina of the top filmmakers, and as thoroughly as the most seasoned journalists.
Jefferson says there are journalists going in and out of Pointe à la Hache. But few are likely to break through the maze of suspicion and doubt that has been fostered by unrepresentative reporting that residents believe has ignored the impact of the oil spill on their lives along with a long history of disenfranchisement of the community and others like it—from freshwater diversion projects in both the early 1960s and the early 1990s that destroyed their oyster beds to government regulations that at one time outlawed certain small boats, which were the ones primarily used by the Black fishermen.
As such, her first task was earning the trust of the people of Pointe a la Hache, a tightly-knit community where everyone almost invariably knows everyone else. In fact, it’s difficult to find a resident of Pointe a la Hache, Davant or Phoenix (two additional African-American fishing communities in Plaquemines Parish) whose livelihood is not now tied to or at least was once connected to the brackish water that is the lifeblood of those communities.
“I don’t think they’re willing to just open up to anyone. I spent the time,” Jefferson says. “(They) weren’t willing to just share with anyone. It came to a point to where they said, ‘You talk to her.’ They’re kind people. But it doesn’t mean they’re going to open up.”
Jefferson believes the story transcends, to some extent, matters of race because of the global reach of the oil industry and the inherent vulnerability of places such as Pointe à la Hache, 55 miles southeast of New Orleans.
“Again, I’m thankful to the community. To be honest, I think that anyone out there – Black, green or yellow – there’s a story worth telling.”
Jefferson, who attended Boston University and now lives again in New Orleans, realized she could take a different route to pursue her passion for story-telling.
“I realized I didn’t have to study journalism,” she says. “I could really work in production and film. I learned the inner workings of production and television, and then I attended Emerson College (in Boston),” where she studied marketing and integrated communication.
The strategy is starting to pay dividends. So far, “Vanishing Pearls” has shown at the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, a film festival for first-time filmmakers in the same vein as The Sundance Film Festival.
With a modest budget that pales in comparison to what other filmmakers operate, Jefferson spent four years on the project. On Jan.18 of this year, it sold out all premieres.
“It shows there is great interest beyond the Gulf Coast about the BP oil spill,” Jefferson says.
There is something bigger here, she adds.
“I’m sure in other areas where the natural resources are plentiful, and the oil and gas resources are more important than the communities, they are so easy to take advantage of,” Jefferson asserts.
Jefferson was able to capture so much about a little town in South Louisiana by tapping into the trust she had built there since the disaster completely changed the fishing landscape.
For years the fishing community had to push back against the intrusive oil and gas industry as it sought to boost profits with little consideration to the environmental calamity they were fostering. Jefferson’s assessment is that both the fishermen and the oil companies share the same fishing bottoms but the oil companies usually win because they have the most money.
“No one is sure if anything can be done about it,” she says. “Of course BP is not going to tell you about the communities they screwed up. They’re not going to admit that. There needs to be more of a balance with news coverage. We really need this message to hit a global stage.”
Reception of the film is developing slowly. For her part, Jefferson isn’t totally surprised, she says.
“We haven’t really gotten it out there that much,” she says, adding it’s been out only a month. She does hope there can be a hometown premiere in time for the four-year anniversary of the BP Oil Spill later this year. The UK has shown an interest but Jefferson admits she’d like her own city to show it, specifically the New Orleans Film Festival.
“We’d love to be there. It’s a local film,” she says.
Jefferson says the entire story resonates with people because of the backdrop of a David and Goliath theme.
“I just remember when this spill happened; it really captured peoples’ attention. They were horrified. An oil company could run so free in the Gulf of Mexico, and for people to see those (media reports) and be swayed. So when you finally hear the truth that can be very disconcerting. These are salt of the Earth people. All they want to do is fish. It’s so simple. To see the one thing they do to be taken away, it’s heartbreaking. We need to keep putting it out there. Our role is to carry the baton across the finish line. I can stay with the story. That’s what “Vanishing Pearls” is about, to have a positive effect, on regulation, drilling and cleanup efforts.”
Lovell Beaulieu is a journalist.