Slamdance Women Directors: Meet Nailah Jefferson

Slamdance Women Directors: Meet Nailah Jefferson

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 Seattle
I’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.

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