May 8 at 7:30
Houston Museum of African American Culture
4807 Caroline St.
Filmmaker Nailah Jefferson, whose new film Vanishing Pearls screens this week at the Houston Museum of African American Culture, founded production company Perspective Pictures in New Orleans in early 2010. Jefferson, who studied film at Boston University and had spent the previous few years working with director Lee Daniels (best known for last year’s The Butler) during the making of Tennessee and the development of Precious, knew she wanted her first film to be a documentary. She was scouting for a subject when, on April 22, 2010, only a few weeks after she founded the company, there was an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling platform. The resulting oil spill lasted for 87 days, the largest offshore spill in US history. (No, the documentary will not be screening at this week’s Offshore Technology Conference.)
Jefferson was talking with a family friend in New Orleans after the spill when she first heard of Point á la Hache, the last surviving African American fishing village in Louisiana. Located in Plaquemines Parish on the east bank of the Mississippi, the 300-person community was hit especially hard by the spill. It was founded by sharecroppers who worked on boats owned by whites. Eventually, the sharecroppers bought their own boats and become independent operators. Although the village was only a short drive from where she grew up, Jefferson had never heard of it, so she decided to pay a visit.
“I just fell in love with the place,” Jefferson said recently. “It’s a beautiful town, and although it’s only an hour and a half from New Orleans, it’s really a world apart. They still sleep with their doors unlocked.”
When Jefferson arrived, the town was languishing under the ban on fishing that had been imposed in the wake of the oil spill. “Once I realized that this was a way of life that may not be able to continue after the spill, that was even more motivation to continue with the story.”
For the next three years, Jefferson made multiple visits to the town as it attempted to cope with this existential threat to its livelihood. She interviewed dozens of residents, documenting a way of life that seemed to be disappearing before her eyes. When fishing was finally allowed to resume on public grounds in October 2011, the town’s fishermen eagerly took to the water, only to discover that the full recovery promised by BP and state officials was largely an illusion. The $20 billion in payments BP had agreed to make to local communities was also something of an illusion. Residents of Point á la Hache had to battle BP in court for years attempting to get compensated for the damage to their fishing business.
Just getting the film made was a major challenge, Jefferson said. Her director of photography left the project in the middle of production, forcing her to pick up the camera herself. She was the only crewmember to be involved in the film from start to finish, and other crew members agreed worked at discount rates because of budgetary constraints. She credits her experience working with Lee Daniels with giving her the tools she needed to finish the project.
“I learned so much from him,” she said. “For instance, there’s no certain people you have to go through for funding. You don’t necessarily have to go through certain channels for grants. You just find someone who’s interested in film, and they may want to be an executive producer. There are no rules when you’re trying to get a project made—you just have to do what you have to do.”