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Interview: Nailah Jefferson Talks Directing Debut 'Vanishing Pearls' & 2010's Oil Spill Aftermath in Black Fishing Community (Opens Today)

Interviews
by Vanessa Martinez
April 18, 2014 11:30 AM
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Before working on the production of several shorts and documentaries, New Orleans native Nailah Jefferson couldn’t foresee adding director to her resume, let alone embarking on a journey to helm a feature documentary, whose making would span the course of 3 ½ years. 

Vanishing Pearls, a passion project and Nailah Jefferson’s feature directorial debut, documents the aftermath of the BP (British Petroleum) oil spill of 2010, specifically its effects on the oyster fishing industry in the Louisiana Gulf town of Pointe a la Hache in New Orleans. Jefferson wanted to record the place in history of this town’s African American fishing community, who relied on fishing for their livelihood for generations, prior to the Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster.

In our candid interview, Jefferson tells Shadow and Act more about directing this important documentary, the challenges to complete it, getting acquired for distribution by AFFRM, and where the oyster fishing industry at Pointe la Hache stands today. 

VM: This is your first directing credit. Why a documentary? 

NJ: Well, I have always loved documentaries. When I was in college I sat in my room for days and days and watched a Ken Burns documentary. So, I’ve always wanted to produce one. I really didn’t think I had the ability to direct, but I knew I wanted to work in documentaries. When the opportunity came and I was introduced to the community of Pointe a la Hache, and Mr. Byron [Encalade], who is the subject of this film, and I knew it was something that I couldn’t pass up. It’s a story that really touched my heart. I’m from New Orleans, but I didn’t know this community existed; so I if didn’t know, I’m sure most people don’t know. The story is interesting, and I also know this is a community that really needed it. If we could get the word out on what’s going on and possibly help them, we would. 

VM: What’s your cinematic approach to documentary filmmaking? 

NJ: This was a very running time type of documentary, and of course, it’s happening in real time. So, it’s a bit more rough and not as polished as a Ken Burns documentary. In those documentaries, they were able to look at years and years of history that were already unfolded; where this story was unfolding right in front of our eyes. The first time filming you’re a lot more critical of yourself, but I had to learn to really allow the story to play out and trust that I had a good story in front of me, and so, the story is really at the forefront. But then, I also had the great fortune of having a story that took place on this beautiful landscape, and in a way I was totally feeling like, “How can I make this sunrise look bad?” That gave me not only a good story, but also one that’s visually and aesthetically pleasing. 

VM: Who did you have working with you on this film? 

NJ: Starting out, it was just myself and the DP on the film. He worked through the end of 2011. So afterwards, I had other people come in as additional camera people. Then last year, I did most of the shooting myself. In this film, I learned a lot and I matured a lot as a filmmaker. We wanted to focus the money on post-production, so I had to pick up the camera myself. I was fortunate enough that I got most of my gear for free, and I could go out there and shoot. 

VM: What’s your background? In producing? 

NJ: My background is more producing. I’ve worked in so many different productions. In this field, if you don’t intern here, there and everywhere, then you don’t know where you fit in. I was an executive assistant with Lee Daniels. That was my last job in New York before I came back home, and when I came back home, I worked with a production company, and that was really my first time producing. I was able to work hard in a short film that unfortunately never saw the light of day, but it was a documentary on the use of HBCU (historically black colleges and universities). So, that’s when I was able to build up my confidence as a filmmaker. Then I left that company in March of 2010, and then a month later I was able to jump right into making this film. 

VM: What are you mostly interested in directing: documentaries, feature films? 

NJ: Well, I really do love to write before I even knew I could direct. When I was in school I always thought of myself as a writer and producer, and I don’t know what it was that made me think I couldn’t step into directing, but it’s something that came as I became more confident in my ability. But I don’t see my next project as a documentary, although you never know what’s going to happen. I really love filmmaking period, whether it’s narrative, animated etc. I don’t want to put myself in a box. My imagination can kind of go everywhere, so I want to be able to run free and not just focus on one area. 

VM: How did the oyster fishermen respond to you wanting to document this story? 

NJ: It’s interesting because they had so much media attention, different corporations coming in and out, wanting to shoot for a day or two, or a week. So when Mr. Byron met me, we were actually at a meeting and I was trying to talk to him and he was kind of like “I got to listen to this.” His son in law was the one who thought we should meet. Byron is entrusted by everyone in this community. He really is the leader, so if you’re introduced to the fisherman through him, that means a lot. 

They began to open up more, and I think it was because he was sick with all of the media coming in and out and not really staying and sticking with the story. So, I promised them that I’d make sure we’d put a story together that was the full story that could possibly have a positive impact on the community. That’s always been the goal. A lot of the fishermen are very endearing type of people. I would say some of them were a bit shy, but now that I’ve been around they’re used to seeing me with cameras. Every time I’d go down there they’d be like, “Hey photography lady!” [Laughs] 

VM: What was the most challenging aspect of making this film? 

NJ: Definitely raising the money and definitely sticking with it [the film]. There were these other documentaries about the oil spill that are coming out in the market, and you’re thinking no one is going to want to hear this story. But I know I made a promise to the community, and I knew the story wasn’t done a year after, 2 years after, even 3. I spent 3 and ½ years shooting this film. I knew we had to give it some kind of finality. When the spill occurred, there were all these questions about what it would do to the environment, and now we’re telling you this two-year timeline for the recovery is indeed not true because we’re 3 and ½ years, 4 years out. 

VM: How is the situation for the residents of Pointe a la Hache today? Is the oyster fishing community still there? 

NJ: They’re in a terrible position. Lots of charities are helping people pay their mortgages and pay other bills. A lot of these men have turned to social security and others are relying on food stamps and things like that. Stanley, a fisherman in the film had said, “I’m a strong healthy man, I shouldn’t have to do that but this is what I’ve been reduced to,” and they’re also having to pick odd jobs, but it’s nothing like they were able to do for years and years and years fishing. 

VM: How did you raise money to produce the film? 


NJ: It started out where I put in some money as an investment and that fell through deep into the film. So I took out a loan, and raised some money from independent donors. And last year, I found my executive producer [Dean Blanchard], so he helped all throughout 2013, which was extremely helpful. Dean was actually a shrimp processor down here, and although he’s not an oysterman and hasn’t been in Pointe a la Hache, he was able to identify with this community. He also hasn’t been treated fairly, so he was willing to help finish this film, and that’s how we were able to get it done and cross the finish line. Actually, it worked to my benefit because when I talked to Ava, our very first conversation was, “Who were you able to get funds from?” And although I was turned down by other resources, it worked in my favor because I owned the film outright. 

VM: I read in an interview with you back in January that you were able to get in touch with Kenneth Feinberg, the Director of the Gulf Coast Claims Fund, and you thought he would be hard to reach, but he wasn’t. Was he helpful? 

NJ: He was definitely accessible. I wouldn’t necessarily say helpful. I didn’t speak to Feinberg until 2013, and by then he had been removed from the job, and I thought, I really think he should take this opportunity and say, “You know, this two year timeline we had since the spill occurred, to say that things would be back to normal was wrong. BP should try and open up some of these claims.” But he didn’t do that, and he said that BP was doing a great job and that “We did what we thought was needed to come up with these formulas. People just need to move forward and move on from the spill and not rely on these claims.” I mean that’s all well and good, but they can’t move on; they have nothing to do now. They have no work. BP destroyed their fishing. 

These are not people looking for handouts. They’re not waiting for someone to drop off a donation everyday. They wake up before the sun’s out and they work hard day after day. They’re people who want some help because their livelihood has been destroyed. So even if Mr. Feinberg was accessible and very polite in the interview, I don’t think he took into account how important this industry is to these people. It really is the backbone of their community. If they really put that into account, I don’t think they would try to throw $5,000 at a person and say, “Here, case closed. Move on with your life.” 

VM: Have you heard from BP as of yet? 

NJ: No, I don’t expect to hear a response. 

VM: How did AFFRM get involved with you for distribution? Did they reach out to you? 

NJ: Well, I was very blessed to have premiered at Slamdance Film Festival and that finally put us on the map. We started getting inquiries from different production companies and distributors. AFFRM was one of them, so when I got that call, I was extremely excited. I didn’t know Ava [Duvernay], but I knew who she was. I knew she was a rising star, and I always worked with men throughout this production, and I had yet to find a woman to work with. I wanted to work with a female mentor in this industry, and I had yet to find one, so when I got the call from the AFFRM, I was overjoyed. So far, it has been a great experience. They do take you in as a family, and they’ve been so supportive of this film. 

VM: Who inspires you as a filmmaker? 

NJ: I have to say Steve McQueen is an inspiration. If I say Ava Duvernay, am I going to sound like a suck up? [laughs] I’ve also always loved Ken Burns as a documentary filmmaker. I’m just looking at directors in a different way. 

VM: How has Byron Encalade and the other fishermen involved responded to the finished film? 

NJ: They’ve been happy with it; they’re very pleased. That’s one thing that I worried about. They allowed me into their homes; they allowed me to tell their story and that’s a huge responsibility. I wanted to be fair. I also wanted to be objective, and I wanted to serve their purpose, which was to possibly aid their community. Byron is very pleased and can’t wait for the New Orleans premiere. 

It’s the first time their history has been put on film. There’s a patriarch at the community and his name is Reverend Edwards. He told me that a book came out a couple of years prior about the history of Plaquemines Parish [in Pointe a la Hache], and he asked the author, “Why aren’t there any African Americans in this book?” and the man responded, “Well, if you want a story about y’all, write it yourself.” So hopefully with this film, this part of history will be addressed.

AFFRM will open the film in NYC and LA this Friday, April 18, to coincide with the 4th anniversary of one of America’s worst environmental tragedies, followed by successive play-dates around the country. To find out it it'll screen at a theater near you, take a look at the first schedule of engagements schedule below (trailer underneath):


April 18 | NEW YORK | Imagenation RAW Space (Presented by AFFRM partners Imagenation and Urbanworld Film Festival)

April 18 | LOS ANGELES | Downtown Independent

Day 5 of the BP Oil Spill | April 25 | DETROIT | Cinema Detroit

Day 6 of the BP Oil Spill | April 26 | MONTGOMERY | Pure Artistry Literary Cafe

Day 6 of the BP Oil Spill |April 26 | ATLANTA | Morehouse College (Presented by AFFRM partner Bronzelens Film Festival)

Day 7 of the BP Oil Spill | April 27 | SEATTLE | Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute (Presented by AFFRM partner Langston Hughes African American Film Festival)

Day 9 of the BP Oil Spill | April 29 | NEW ORLEANS | Sync Up Cinema

Day 19 of the BP Oil Spill | May 8 | HOUSTON | Houston Museum of African American Culture (Presented by AFFRM partner HMAAC)

Day 28 of the BP Oil Spill | May 17 | AUSTIN | Alamo Drafthouse

Day 30 of the BP Oil Spill  |May 19 | WASHINGTON, DC | Anacostia Art Center (Presented by AFFRM partner Parallel Film Collective)

Day 32 of the BP Oil Spill | May 21 | PHILADELPHIA | International House (Presented by AFFRM partner Reelblack)

Day 48 of the BP Oil Spill | June 6 | CHICAGO | DuSable Museum of African American History

Day 52 of the BP Oil Spill | June 10 | BIRMINGHAM | Sidewalk Film Festival

Day 55 of the BP Oil Spill | June 13 | COLUMBIA, SC | The Nickelodeon

Watch a trailer for the film below (poster underneath):


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