I’ve worked on Vanishing Pearls: The Oystermen of Pointe A La Hache for years — three and a half years, to be exact. During that entire time, I so desired to have a woman on my team. There was my cousin Dawn, who worked as my intern for a semester. There was also Britain, whose deep love and dedication to the fishermen led her to lend her marketing expertise from time to time. But still, I longed for more.
I have to admit, I never really had a team because the budget didn’t allow for it. I had more of a rotating cast of freelance workers who were 99% male. They were very generous with their time and worked for much less than they were worth, but I still just wished I had a sister-in-arms, so to speak.
As the years went by, I thought about it less and less. I had to let it go — just getting the film completed was a hard-enough task. Undaunted, I did what many of us filmmakers do — blocked out the distractions, put my head down and focused squarely on the project. Once in a while, my authority would be challenged or my ideas questioned by male counterparts. Sometimes I thought my gender played into it, but I never had a woman to bounce those suspicions off of. Perhaps it was for the best. Perhaps if I had had someone to talk to, I would have given energy to situations that were not deserving of such attention.
The fishermen were always kind. During my time documenting them, many began to refer to me as “photographer lady.” I’m sure the nickname arose from their inability to remember or pronounce my name. Nailah isn’t the easiest of names. It wasn’t a term that offended me, rather one that made me smile. I thought it was endearing, “The photographer lady and the oystermen.” I did sometimes wonder, “Why photographer lady? Why not just photographer?” Perhaps they were pointing out a rarity that I had learned to pay less attention to.
The film was completed in December 2013, and in January 2014 we premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival. It wasn’t until I arrived at Slamdance that I realized I was one of just a few female directors presenting their work. Another female filmmaker approached me in the hallway of the Treasure Mountain Inn and said, “Fucking awesome! Female directors! Do you know how fucking big this is?” At first I cringed, thinking, “My mom can hear you!” But once that feeling subsided, I thought, yeah, it was “fucking awesome.” I guess in my endeavor to get Vanishing Pearls made, I lost sight of just how extraordinary an opportunity, how big an accomplishment, this was. So I allowed myself to marvel for a bit. Then I promised myself that on my next film, I’d work harder to have more women involved. Little did I realize that I was not going to have to wait until my next film.
On Mardi Gras day, I got a call from Tilane Jones of the African American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM) welcoming me to “the AFFRM Family,” as she so warmly put it. They had just become my distribution company. Finally, after years of wanting something so badly, then ultimately letting it go, I now had a team of women who would be playing one of the most powerful roles in the film business — the distributors. This team would walk my film across the finish line, and at its helm, was a brilliant woman director, Ava DuVernay. In our conversations she always refers to me as “Sis,” a heartwarming, welcome greeting for someone who longed for a sisterhood in this business. So, finally, I have my film Vanishing Pearls, and my family, AFFRM. There are no more feelings of being the lone soldier on the battlefield, but rather, I am one member of a female army working hard to save the Oystermen of Pointe a la Hache.
Vanishing Pearls opens today.
Previously: Slamdance Women Directors: Meet Nailah Jefferson