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Slamdance Women Directors: Meet Nailah Jefferson

By Melissa Silverstein | Women and Hollywood January 24, 2014 at 12:00PM

"The biggest misconception about this film is that we have some vendetta against BP. We didn't go searching for problems, [but] these issues are real and they are absolutely leading to the downfall of this community."
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Still from "Vanishing Pearls"
Still from "Vanishing Pearls"

Born and raised in New Orleans, Nailah Jefferson created the production company Perspective Pictures in March 2010 to tell stories that shed light on little known issues. A month later, the BP oil spill occurred, and Jefferson found the subject of her debut film Vanishing Pearls: the tiny fishing community of Pointe a la Hache, Louisiana. 

Before launching her own production company, Nailah worked on numerous productions, including writing and producing the documentary Historically Black, narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, about the legacy of Historically Black Colleges and Universities. She also worked on the PBS three-part series Race: The Power of an Illusion, an exploration of the concept of race. 

Vanishing Pearls premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival earlier this month. 

Please give us your description of the film. 

Vanishing Pearls: The Oystermen of Pointe a la Hache documents the struggles of the residents of Pointe a la Hache, Louisiana, a tight-knit fishing community, as they come together to confront the multinational oil and gas company BP. The oyster fishermen must fight for justice, accountability, and their very existence, following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill -- one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in U.S. history.

What drew you to this story?

I was born and raised in New Orleans. I have to admit I never really paid too much attention to the bayou communities that pepper Southern Louisiana. However, I've always thought my city was this cultural jewel because of our rich traditions, and our food is a big part of that reputation. Once the spill occurred, and the bayou communities were being inundated with oil, I knew it could have a very negative impact on New Orleans. After all, the seafood New Orleans boasts comes from bayou communities like Pointe a la Hache. That's what initially caught my attention. 

An old family friend, Telley Madina, encouraged me to visit Pointe a la Hache, where his family lived. He told me about their fears of the spreading oil spill, and of his father-in-law, Byron Encalade, President of the Louisiana Oystermen Association. Shortly after the spill, I visited Pointe a 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 ravishing. I met Byron during that trip and we talked about the history -- those fishing families had been fishing in Gulf waters for over a century -- and just how big of a threat the BP spill and the subsequent cleanup efforts were to his community. That's when I knew I had to make this film. 

I was also saddened by the fact 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 at least to let the world know a place like this once existed.

What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

This is such a complicated story. The biggest challenge was balancing the information and showing how past decisions have directly affected the present situation these fishermen are experiencing. This story really stretches back to the early 1900s when oil and gas exploration began in Gulf waters and started impeding on fishermen's rights to the waters. However, we were able to balance the focus on history and the present situation by allowing the fishermen's voices to tell the story. Staying true to them and their struggle is what Vanishing Pearls is about.

What advice do you have for other female directors?

The best advice I can give is to fight your way to the end. This film took about three and a half years to make, and the process was full of ebbs and flows. Personally, I sometimes allowed hard times to outweigh the good ones and focused on the reasons why this film might not happen. Please fight through those moments. It's absolutely worth it, and in the end you'll have a piece a work you can be proud of because you battled your way through. 

What's the biggest misconception about you and your work?

I think the biggest misconception about this film is that we have some vendetta against BP. That's not true. We didn't go searching for problems, [but] these issues are real and they are absolutely leading to the downfall of this community. If BP had kept their word to "make this right," then Vanishing Pearls would not have been the heart-wrenching story that it is. I actually wish it didn't have to be what it became and that this was a more triumphant story. But the truth is that there is a small fishing community in Louisiana named Pointe a la Hache, and it is vanishing.

Do you have any thoughts on what are the biggest challenges and/or opportunities for the future with the changing distribution mechanisms for films?

I think there are a lot of opportunities on the horizon. We've gotten some good feedback and really out-of-the-box ideas when it comes to distributing this film. Whatever plan we go with though, I want to make sure it positions Vanishing Pearls as a springboard to really launch a movement for change and justice in the Gulf Coast communities still suffering from the effects of the BP oil spill.

Name your favorite woman directed film and why.

There are a lot of women in film whom I admire. Many of them raised me through their films, from Penny Marshall's A League of Their Own to Nora Ephron's Sleepless in SeattleI'd have to say today, my favorite is Kathryn Bigelow and the film is Zero Dark Thirty. Not just the film, which I think was executed flawlessly, but also the story behind the film and all the crap she took in making it and once it was released. You have to be tough as nails to fight through that. She's a great example for female directors -- not only her talent, but her tenacity as well.

This article is related to: Slamdance Film Festival, Film Festivals, Interviews, Documentary, Nailah Jefferson, Vanishing Pearls: The Oystermen of Pointe a la Hache


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