This month, Ava Duvernay’s African American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AAFRM) and ImageNation Rawspace premiered the documentary Vanishing Pearls in New York. AAFRM’s first documentary, Vanishing Pearls puts faces to the statistics of the effects of oil spills, giving viewers a firsthand look at what continues to be an ongoing economic fight for survival by the residence of Pointe a la Hache, a small African-American fishing community of 300 in Palquemines Parish, Louisiana. Although it’s the state director, Nailah Jefferson knows well, the town of focus is one she became familiar with when working on this documentary.
“I’m from New Orleans, only 55 miles from Pointe a la Hache, where the film takes place but I was not aware of this community,” she says. “To be honest, I really never thought about who caught the seafood. I didn’t realize there were these small, family run businesses. But when I was invited down to Pointe a la Hache just weeks after the spill occurred it really opened my eyes. I was just so captured by this community, the beauty of it, the warmth of the people, I knew this was a story I had to put on film. I wanted to do the film, not just to tell a story, but to tell a story that could be helpful to this community as they try to overcome the devastation as a result of this spill.”
From the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989, to the Mega Borg oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico 57 miles off Galveston in 1990. To the Yellowstone River disaster in Montana in 2010, these are but a few of the oil spills that have taken place within the site of the U.S. mainland since the 1911. When Louisiana’s Deepwater Horizon disaster initially occurred in April 2010, there were all sorts of political and corporate talking heads on the 24-hour news networks professing their undying mission to make sure those responsible for the explosion and subsequent oil spill would be brought to justice. President Barack Obama being the most visible of those who pledged their willingness to punish Haliburton, TransOcean and British Petroleum (BP)-each of which was found liable for the disaster to some degree. However, as we stand at the four-year anniversary of the second largest environmental disaster in the history of the United States, we see the water ways which were tainted by the oil spill have not healed themselves. The $20 billion that was earmarked to compensate those communities, businesses and individuals who were affected by the oil spill has not gone to those who have needed it most. These are the subjects of Vanishing Pearls.
“One of the things I realized in filming this is we all have a veil. There are so many things that I do not know, but I definitely peeled one of those off and I realize just how much we let the oil and gas industry get away with. How much we allow them to abuse our lands and abuse our people and how profit is put over people’s lives every day. It’s a problem in this country that we have where profit is put over people every day,” says Jefferson, who says that Haliburton, BP or TransOcean chose to send a representative to describe their role in usurping the life style of a Pointe a la Hache. “I think Bob Marshall, a journalist with the Lens, put it best, we’re willing to allow the oil and gas companies to privatize the profits but socialize the risk and that’s what has happened with the oil spill. They don’t want to take responsibility for destroying Louisiana’s fishing industry.”
Once a thriving fishing community before the Louisiana’s Deepwater Horizon disaster, one where countless families lived off the water selling oysters to make a living, now the town is deemed a dead zone after oil sank to the bottom of the sea killing oysters, which provided economic pearls for multiple family business. The havoc the oil and gas industry has caused on this small Louisiana community – as well as dozens of others up and down the gulf coast – hasn’t been admitted to. “Obviously, they have the money. They have more money than some countries. If they pay these fishermen like they should then they are owning responsibility for what they’ve done,” says Jefferson. “But that’s what they need to do so we can move forward, so we can get people’s lives back on track and so we can actually get the science in place to try to fix what has been destroyed. But, BP is not doing that.”
In the film, BP hired a firm run by attorney Ken Feinberg and his mission appears to be to nickel and dime the residents of Pointe A la Hache until they give in to a lowball amount. Some say it’s just good business, but wickedness by any other name is still wickedness.
“Unfortunately, once the 20 billion dollar fund was put together and then everyone just threw up their hands and said 'OK, we’ve done our job' and just walked away,” says the director who spent three years making Vanishing Pearls. “Really, someone needed to regulate where this money was going, and who it was going to, but that was not done.”
“In Louisiana you can apply for different grants, but one of the terms you have to agree to is you cannot depict the state in a negative light. I mean, we’re not trying to depict the state in a negative light but that’s kind of the reality. So, I knew I wouldn’t get that money,” says Jefferson who wrapped the film in December. “What’s also interesting as far as raising funds for the film, BP has been very smart. They dished out a lot of money, not necessarily to oil spill victims, but they have dished out a lot of money to non-profits groups and we come along and say, ‘Hey, we’re putting together this film. Can you make a donation?’ They may say, ‘Well, we would love to fund your film and we appreciate what you’re doing but BP gave us some money. So, unfortunately we can’t help with your film.”
A year after the disaster, BP poured money into commercials urging tourists to return to southern Louisiana’s beaches and all of its popular tourist attractions. We were told the water was “fine” and the food was just as pristine and delicious as ever. But this is far from the truth.
“I think they are using some individuals’ ignorance against them, but that would be people like me and you. Those fishermen down there know what’s going on. They know that for years and years various areas have been polluted and they have created these dead zones and the BP oil spill has wiped out something that may have taken years to build up and destroyed it in minutes, moments really,” says Jefferson. “I think it is the larger public, the general public that does not live along the water or rely on it for their livelihood, people who don’t rely on this land to survive, it’s our ignorance. The fact that we’re feeding into the message that recovery has occurred. It’s our ignorance that’s allowing it to happen.”
But thanks to the film, the message of truth will spread. Released by AAFRM in New York City and Los Angeles simultaneously, Vanishing Pearls continues to open on a rolling basis throughout the country with a run this month in Los Angeles from April 25 through May 1 at the Downtown Independent. It’ll appear in Detroit at Cinema Detroit over the same timeframe. This weekend, Vanishing Pearls will be screened in Atlanta, Ga at Morehouse College, Pure Artistry Literary Café in Montgomery, Alabama, and in Seattle at the Langston Hughes African American Film Festival.
For more information on where you can catch Vanishing Pearls and how to help the residents of Pointe a la Hache, log on to www.vanishingpearls.com.