In April 2010, an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon sank the oil rig, killed 11 crew members, and flooded the Gulf of Mexico with oil. BP (British Petroleum) accepted responsibility for the spill and the subsequent clean-up costs.
Today, on their official website, BP mentions their “economic and environmental restoration efforts” in the Gulf of Mexico. “Vanishing Pearls: The Oystermen of Pointe á la Hache,” offers a different perspective on the situation. Screening this week as part of Slamdance 2014, the film documents the ongoing struggles of those whose lives were changed by the spill.
When reached by phone for an interview, director Nailah Jefferson talked about the project and how she gained the trust of the locals as well as the outlook for the oystermen.
In 2010, I watched images of oil flowing into the Gulf of Mexico with great interest. After watching “Vanishing Pearls,” I realizes that the event has fallen off my personal radar.
I think that’s what happened with a lot of people, so don’t feel bad. It’s kind of the purpose of this documentary: to put it back on people’s radar and let them know this story isn’t over.
The other day, somebody asked me what I felt the documentary filmmaker’s position is in this media world. I said, “Carry the baton across the finish line.” We’re supposed to let you know that the story is still going on and that it is not over. These issues are still important when dealing with the BP oil spill of 2010.
One detail that stuck with me was how the spill affected SPAT (larval oyster) reproduction and growth.
Oysters on the East bank of the Mississippi River in those Bayou communities have not returned. There are no SPAT catches, which means the oysters are not reproducing.
You were able to speak with Kenneth Feinberg, the federally-appointed administrator of the Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF). In the film, he comes across as a stereotypical lawyer.
Kenneth Feinberg is like: “This is my story and I am sticking to it.” We didn’t interview him until 2013, so he was able to see the implications of the program he put in place. In fact, when [SPAT] reproduction hadn’t come back in two years and [he realized] that the payments were not enough to compensate these people, he’s [still] sticking to what he said and the program that he put together.
You also had unprecedented access to the affected fishermen.
These guys are not the most trusting at all. When I went down there, for a long time a lot of them wouldn’t talk to me. I had to really earn their trust over the years. It’s really a situation now where they welcome me into their homes. For a lot of them, I am part of their families, which I really appreciate.
They refer to me as “Photographer Girl” because they really can’t say my name. They are really welcoming, warm people once they break down that wall and they see that you are trustworthy. And that you are really trying to tell their story in a truthful and honest way.
In the film, you talk about the Gulf Coast Claims Facility and the quick claim payments to fisherman. But the amounts–$5,000 for an individual and $25,000 for a business—seem rather unfair.
That’s for a lifetime [of work]. When those numbers came out, I thought five thousand per year or five thousand every six months. They said, “No, this is five thousand for a lifetime.” That means these people can’t go back to fishing; they have to find other work.
Coming into 2014, are there any signs of hope? Are there any bright spots on the horizon with this story?
Unfortunately, the fishing has not come back. On the East bank of the river in Pointe a la Hache, there are no signs of recovery as far as the oysters. I hate to say it, but as far as fishing goes there, [the answer is] no.
“Vanishing Pearls” will screen again in Park City, Utah, at the Treasure Mountain Inn at 5 p.m. on January 22 in the Gallery.