Catching Up With Vanishing Pearls Director, Nailah Jefferson

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Nailah Jefferson blew us away last month with her directorial debut, Vanishing Pearls: The Oystermen of Pointe à la Hache. The documentary, which first premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival earlier this year, brings to light the ongoing, devastating effects of the 2010 BP Oil spill on bayou communities in Louisiana. But Jefferson took her work a step further by turning Vanishing Pearls into a history lesson about independent black fishing communities that fought against government-sanctioned and enforced racism and classism over a great many years, only to be faced with similar issues after the disaster. For her powerful narrative, Jefferson earned a spot on our list of 10 Black Directors to Watch in 2014. Paste caught up with the Louisiana native to talk about falling in love with film, marketing her work, and teaming up with Ava DuVernay.

Nailah Jefferson: I’m so glad we finally get to talk!
Paste Magazine: Yes, I know! How’s it been over the last few days? You guys must be really busy over there.
Jefferson: It’s been busy, but I keep saying I’ll make time for anything. I’ll talk to anybody about the film. I’m just glad that people want to talk about it.

Paste: Can you talk a little about your early beginnings in film? When did you start developing an interest in making movies?
Jefferson: That’s funny—I’m actually just filling out this Q&A for Essence magazine and I have to answer that question. I remember when I was younger my older sister and I went to go see The Shawshank Redemption and when we were walking out I was like, “Wasn’t that great?” And she said “Yeah!” Then my next question was, “Doesn’t that make you want to go make films?” She was like “No.” (laughs) That’s when I realized I see this a different way, I’m experiencing this differently.
Paste: Right.
Jefferson: I had a certain passion that maybe wasn’t typical. Growing up as a young girl in New Orleans we didn’t really have the booming film industry that we have now. I didn’t know how to get into it and I didn’t really think too hard about it. I thought I’d get into journalism. But when I was applying to Boston University I realized that there was a film and television major and I felt like that was a way in.

Paste: I’m from Somerville, so I’m curious to know what it was like for you moving to Boston from New Orleans.
Jefferson: Well, it was very different. The winter was the main thing. Why was it snowing in May? (laughs)
Paste: Exactly.
Jefferson: So Boston was different. I had friends who went to LSU [Louisiana State University] and they really had that campus experience. But BU was a bit more professional in a sense, so sometimes I feel like I missed out on that experience. Howeverm I really feel like I got what I needed to out of BU. And Boston represented my first introduction into documentary filmmaking. When I was there I interned on a film called Race: The Power of an Illusion. It was produced by California Newsreel, and I learned so much with them, so I’m very grateful for those experiences. But it was definitely very different from home.

Paste: You also got your Masters in Integrated Marketing Communication. I thought that was really interesting. How do you think that your background in film and marketing trained you for production on this film?
Jefferson: I always knew that I wanted to make films but my fear was that if I made them people wouldn’t see them. So that’s why I went back and got the degree in marketing. I think it was helpful in this regard—you always want to keep audience in mind. With films we get so caught up in being creative that we forget it’s also a form of entertainment. If you can’t share it with anybody, at the end of the day it’s not serving its purpose.

Paste: Yes—as an artist you’re often walking that fine line between creating something, and then wanting to sell that thing so people will actually experience it. So I thought it was cool that you found a way to do both. How did you end up teaming with Ava DuVernay?
Jefferson: After the Slamdance premiere in January I got a call. For a long time Vanishing Pearls was just this little project that no one knew about it. I was just up in my mom’s attic, editing there. We had a good premiere at Slamdance. I had a great publicist and we got some great reviews—some mixed reviews too! But we were finally on the map. We heard from AFFRM about a week later. And when I talked with them they told me they’d been looking for a documentary. They said they put out about four or five films a year and they really wanted a documentary. So I was like, “Wow, this is great! I was looking for you too!” They also hadn’t signed a female filmmaker, so I’m actually the only woman other than Ava to sign with AFFRM, so that was quite a treat.

The thing that I so respect about Ava is that you come across creative people a lot of the time, but it’s rare to meet someone who is so creative and yet so business-minded. She’s this woman who made a way for herself, who said, “Okay, you’re not going to put out my film? I’ll figure it out myself.” And then, not only did she make a way for herself, but then she reached back and found other black filmmakers to bring along. So I’m so grateful that they believe in this film.

Paste: On that note, let’s talk about the sense of responsibility in the black community. Ava makes a way for herself, and then makes a way for other black filmmakers so she might be a good example of this. I’ve also been watching ESPN today, following the Donald Sterling story. Stephen A. Smith was talking a bit about that pressure that falls on the black players to take a stand on something. Did you feel a sense of responsibility when you first learned about these communities, and did it ever make it difficult to navigate through your emotions while still trying to make a good documentary?
Jefferson: I definitely felt a great sense of responsibility because this is the first time that this particular story is being shared. And yes, I felt an extreme amount of pressure. These people let me into their lives and their homes and gave me their time so I wanted to do their story justice. But I also wanted to make this a story that other people along the Gulf Coast who had been mistreated by these corporations could hang onto.

I see what your question is, and people have asked me what the story of the Pointe à la Hache men had to with it. But those men and their families wouldn’t have been there without that history of sharecropping and struggle. And I wanted others in the bayou to be able to say, “Well, that might not be our history, but we identify with the struggle.”

Paste: Since you made the film how have things changed for the families?
Jefferson: Not much has changed, but our hope is that this film will lead to some change. One thing we’re doing is working the community and trying to find out what they need, getting some social advocacy tied in with the film. I don’t like when groups come into a community and start telling people what to. You really need to hear from them about what they need now. I also just got a very encouraging e-mail from an international advocacy group that I think wants to partner with the fishermen. So I do believe the film will lead to great things, and that we’ll start to see some changes here.

Paste: That’s amazing. What’s next for you? You’re working on a narrative feature and some short films, right?
Jefferson: Yes, well, I’m writing. And that’s what I want to do. I want to just take the summer off and devote myself to writing and reading. For the last three years the only things I’ve read have been about oysters and oil spills, so I just need to reprogram (laughs).
I’m open to more documentaries, but I also don’t want to box myself in. I love filmmaking and I’Im passionate about it all.

Paste: I’m excited for more of your work, and I was so psyched to see that you’d teamed up with Ava. She was on a different list I put together about women directors, so when I saw that you two were working together I was thrilled!
Jefferson: Thank you. And thanks so much for putting me on that list of black directors—that was amazing!
Paste: Absolutely. Thanks again for chatting with us.

Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor at Paste, and a New York-based freelance writer with probably more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.

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