Focusing on the oyster fisherman of the small, largely African-American community of Pointe a la Hache, La., “Vanishing Pearls” traces a struggle against oppression and exploitation that culminates in the disastrous 2010 BP oil spill. Tyro documentarian Nailah Jefferson’s presentation starts off strong, effectively bolstered by interviews with impacted oystermen, concerned environmentalists and assorted BP apologists. Certainly the sacrifice of a viable culture to corporate greed, though depressingly familiar, deserves documentation. But the film gets bogged down in details, losing momentum, clarity and conviction; interviews highlighting the community’s very real plight grow bathetic through repetition. Tube play seems indicated.
Fishermen stand at their boats’ prows, surveying the Gulf of Mexico’s shimmering expanse, and speak movingly of the sea’s bounty and of a way of life enjoyed by their families for generations. The film’s de facto protagonist, earnest community spokesperson Byron Encalade, recounts how the close-knit community triumphed over a history of “sharecropping” on white men’s boats, racist laws that sought to destroy people’s ability to deploy their own smaller craft, and the havoc wrought by Hurricane Katrina, only to be laid low by the catastrophic oil spill and BP’s highly questionable response to it. Archival documents and imagery succinctly illustrate the area’s ever-ascendant backstory while, following the government’s lengthy post-spill moratorium on all fishing, dredges can only bring up nets full of dead oysters. Three years after the spill, the oyster beds still show no signs of regeneration.
The lion’s share of Jefferson’s documentary, some three-and-a-half years in the making, concerns the controversy surrounding the efficacy of BP’s clean-up and the disbursement of compensatory funds by government-appointed administrator Kenneth Feinberg in the aftermath of the spill. Egregious instances of corporate manipulation and government mismanagement emerge, as do other key indicators such as a preliminary scientific report that was compiled in a mere 10 days (then instantly pronounced definitive by BP), the toxicity of chemicals used to disperse the oil, and evidence that much of the oil was merely driven to the ocean’s bottom.
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As long as the film concentrates on the shortchanging of local fishermen, BP’s stonewalling and Feinberg’s rationalizing doubletalk, Jefferson’s documentary, while repetitive, remains compelling. But in following the inconsistencies and long delays in the compensation process — which bankrupts the fishermen whose livelihood has disappeared and forces them to accept legally binding but woefully inadequate claims — the film’s throughline falters, lost in a flood of claims, counter-claims and corporate evasions.
D.A. Bullock’s evocative lensing, as proactive in lyrical fishing mode as in talking-head confrontations, adds greatly to “Pearls”’ luster.