×

Slamdance Film Review: ‘Vanishing Pearls: The Oystermen of Pointe a la Hache’

Docu about the effects of the 2010 BP oil spill on a small Louisiana fishing community starts off strong, gets bogged down in the details.

With:

Byron Encalade, Stanley Encalade, Kenneth Feinberg, Wes Tunnell, Ed Cake, Bill Quigley, Telley Madina, Maxine Waters, Clarence Duplessis.

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.

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.

Popular on Variety

Slamdance Film Review: 'Vanishing Pearls: The Oystermen of Pointe a la Hache'

Reviewed on DVD, New York, January 22, 2013. (In Slamdance Film Festival, competing.) Running time: 89 MIN.

Production:

(Documentary) A Perspective Pictures production. (International sales: Game 7 Films, New York.) Produced by Nailah Jefferson. Executive producer, Dean Blanchard.

Crew:

Directed by Nailah Jefferson.  Camera (color, HD), D.A. Bullock; editors, Jefferson, Jack Lykins, Hunter Thompson; music, R. Josh Jones; sound, Jeff T. Byrd.

With:

Byron Encalade, Stanley Encalade, Kenneth Feinberg, Wes Tunnell, Ed Cake, Bill Quigley, Telley Madina, Maxine Waters, Clarence Duplessis.

More Film

  • Editorial use onlyMandatory Credit: Photo by

    Richard Williams, 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit' Animator, Dies at 86

    Renowned animator Richard Williams, best known for his work on “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” died Friday at his home in Bristol, England, Variety has confirmed. He was 86. Williams was a distinguished animator, director, producer, author and teacher whose work has garnered three Oscars and three BAFTA Awards. In addition to his groundbreaking work as [...]

  • Instinct

    Locarno Film Review: 'Instinct'

    Now that “Game of Thrones” has finally reached its conclusion, releasing its gifted international ensemble into the casting wilds, will Hollywood remember just what it has in Carice van Houten? It’s not that the statuesque Dutch thesp hasn’t been consistently employed since her startling 2006 breakout in Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book,” or even that she’s [...]

  • Good Boys Movie

    Box Office: 'Good Boys' Eyes Best Original Comedy Opening of 2019

    Universal’s “Good Boys” is surpassing expectations as it heads toward an estimated $20.8 million opening weekend at the domestic box office following $8.3 million in Friday ticket sales. That’s well above earlier estimates which placed the film in the $12 million to $15 million range, marking the first R-rated comedy to open at No. 1 [...]

  • Pedro Costa’s 'Vitalina Varela' Wins at

    Pedro Costa’s 'Vitalina Varela' Triumphs at Locarno Film Festival

    The 72nd Locarno Film Festival drew to a close Saturday with Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa’s dark and detached film “Vitalina Varela” coming away with several awards together with superlatives from segments of the hardcore cinephile crowd, including jury president Catherine Breillat. In announcing the Golden Leopard prize for the film, as well as best actress [...]

  • Vitalina Varela

    Locarno Film Review: 'Vitalina Varela'

    Frequently beautiful compositions and the theatrical use of a fierce kind of artifice have long been the hallmarks of Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa, regarded by a small but influential group of aesthetes as one of the great filmmakers of our era. For those in tune with his vision, the director’s films offer an exciting lesson [...]

  • Notre dame

    Locarno Film Review: 'Notre dame'

    Not to be too cynical about it, but might the recent horrific fire in Paris’ cathedral attract audiences to a film in which the gothic gem plays a major role? It’s likely a wiser marketing strategy than promoting the unrelenting silliness of Valerie Donzelli’s oh-so-kooky comedy “Notre dame,” the writer-director-star’s return to contemporary Paris following [...]

  • Nordisk Film & TV Fond Announces

    Nordisk Film & TV Fond Backs Joachim Trier, Ole Bornedal, Yellow Bird

    Nordisk Film & TV Fond has announced three features, two series and a documentary set to receive $1.4m in financing, as well as distribution, dubbing and cultural initiative support recipients. Doing so, it highlights some of the key titles moving forward in the Nordic region. Already backed by the Danish Film Institute’s largest ever grant [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content