At the risk of stretching a point until it breaks, both films under review bear on the relationship between race and petroleum. “Vanishing Pearls”, a documentary opening on April 18th at the Imagenation in New York and Downtown Independent in LA (nationwide screening info is at http://www.affrm.com/vanishing-pearls/), looks at the plight of the largely African-American oyster fisherman of Louisiana who have been screwed royally by BP and their henchmen—witting or unwitting.
Since “Bad Hair” (Pelo Malo) is a Venezuelan narrative film about a 9-year-old biracial boy living in Caracas with his mestizo mother and since the Tribeca Film Festival where it is being shown is a platform for films from a left perspective, one might assume that it would be full of positive references to the benefits accrued from petro-development. In fact, just the opposite is the case. The protagonists of Mariana Rondón’s very accomplished film appear totally untouched by the Bolivarian revolution. Despite my commitment to the goals of the Venezuelan government, I could not help but be troubled by the reality depicted in Rondón’s film. Notwithstanding the doubts it raised in my mind, I strongly recommend it as a neorealist examination of the lives of poor people in Caracas, and particularly as a study of the challenges that Junior, its 9-year-old hero, faces in a society where homophobia still looms strong.
If you’ve grown sick of those BP commercials about how the Gulf coast has “returned”, generally shown to the point of saturation on Sunday morning news shows, as well as those full-page ads in the NY Times about how poor BP is being robbed by unscrupulous lawyers, “Vanishing Pearls” is a film that that will provide some satisfaction since it nails the criminal corporation to the wall. Written, directed, and produced by Nailah Jefferson, a young African-American female from New Orleans in her debut production, it profiles a group of oyster fishermen from Pointe a la Hache taking the lead of Byron Encalade, a sixtyish boat owner whose family, neighbors and friends have been ruined by BP’s greed and neglect.
The film is both a fascinating history of an important element of the Black struggle in the Deep South and a study of the environmental impact of unregulated oil drilling in a state where criminal outfits like BP run the state government like a puppet on a string.
Alcalade’s ancestors started out as sharecroppers on sugar and cotton plantations. When Black Louisianans first broke into the oyster fishing business, it was also as sharecroppers. A wealthy white man would pay for the boat and the gear and hire Black crews to operate them. Based on the haul, they would earn a percentage of the profits, just as if the oysters were cotton. Eventually, however, they were able to put away enough money to buy their own boats and become independent small entrepreneurs.
Oyster fishing was one of the prime casualties of the chemical dispersants BP sprayed into the Gulf waters to mitigate the effects of the disaster. In a very real sense the cure was more harmful than the disease since the oil was simply broken down into smaller droplets and floated to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, where it could destroy the habitat not only for oysters but other marine life.
Jefferson did not manage to get interviews with the openly nefarious BP corporate heads and the politicians they own but did get plenty of time with two men who were supposedly on the side of the fishermen. One is Kenneth Feinberg, the lawyer who is supervising payments from BP and who has an alarming tendency to sound and look like a bald Donald Rumsfeld. Feinberg was also the lawyer who managed payouts to the victims of Bernie Madoff. After seeing his double-dealing with the oyster fishermen, you pray that he would end up in a cell next to Madoff. Essentially, most of the fishermen took one-time payments of $25,000 from BP in exchange for agreeing that they would make no further claim. Since all were out of business for months after the BP spill and economically distressed, the payoff was effectively a form of blackmail. Feinberg made no effort to force BP to look after their long-term interests. Feinberg’s firm was paid $850,00 per month for its services. After a couple of months showing its pro-corporate bias, BP rewarded it with a raise to $1,250,000.
The other unwilling villain is a scientist named Wes Tunnell who wrote a report in three days effectively underscoring BP’s claim that things would return to normal by now. At one point he tells Nailah Jefferson that the spill amounted to a cup of coffee being spilled into the New Orleans Superdome, seen from an aerial mounted video camera.
The press notes for “Vanishing Pearls” reveals how Feinberg and Tunnell worked as a tag-team:
By December, many of the fishermen were in dire and desperate straights. Suddenly, Feinberg and GCCS decided to issue “emergency funds” as Christmas neared. This move was not without one small caveat – getting the funds required waiving all rights to bring a suit against the BP oil company. The gravity of the struggling that many of the fishermen had to deal with led many to take the settlement offered in the hopes that they would be able to save their homes and businesses.
Amidst this mess, in 2013, the documentarian decided to contact Feinberg to try and get some answers. Strangely and without hesitation, he agreed to meet with her. It was revealed that BP had begun to urge Feinberg to halt claims payouts all together. They had paid for a “scientific study” and based on the resulting report, BP felt “the areas affected by the spill had recovered and the economy was improving.” The biased report had been commissioned by GCCS and was the sole instrument used to stifle claims. The reality of the situation was quite different, it had been over the stated two years and the oyster beds had not regenerated themselves, the fishermen were still out of work, and recovery claims were still not being paid. Feinberg remained ambivalent. He offered no apology and simply stuck to his ludicrous story that “everything would come back.”
Ms. Jefferson has made a very compelling documentary on a shoestring budget. Considering the fact that Barack Obama has given BP a green light to continue drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, this film arrives at a time when it is most needed. My recommendation is to check this film out and to tell your friends about it.
Marta has her hands filled raising her son Junior and another baby son in a Caracas high-rise that has seen better days. She has just lost her job as a security guard and is scraping by as a maid. In an early scene, she asks Junior to scrub the walls of a Jacuzzi in a middle-class apartment. Yielding to temptation, he fills the tub, strips down to his underwear, and reclines beneath the soothing waters until the matron of the house spots him. Chagrined by her son’s fecklessness, Marta returns home where the conflict between mother and son continues.
Like the women in Chris Rock’s documentary “Good Hair”, very likely a partial inspiration for Rondón’s film, Junior is obsessed with his “bad hair”, the curly legacy of his Black father who was killed by gang members in their typically lawless neighborhood. While fleeing from his Black identity, Junior seems equally gravitating toward some early form of Gay identity, or at least that is Marta’s fear based on his love of singing. What can be more gay, after all, then a 9 year old loving to sing?
Marta’s mother-in-law is okay with his gay tendencies since that would protect him from gangsters. Who would find a reason to shoot a gay man? When Marta leaves the boy with his grandmother while she is out job-hunting, the stay is always crowned by her tending to his hair with a blow dryer. When he all set to get a photo id for school, she gets the bright idea to adorn him in a costume she is sewing together that is similar to the one worn by a popular singer. It goes one step further than Elvis’s costumes in Las Vegas. It is a gold lamé dress that Junior rejects with the words: “I am not a girl”. If the film is influenced by Rock’s documentary, it also bows in the direction of “Billy Elliot”, a British narrative film about a young boy who prefers ballet to boxing, defying his coal miner father’s homophobia.
The film depicts a daily life that is not only untouched by socialism, but by any of the social safety nets of a welfare state except for the local clinic that is free. Marta keeps bringing Junior in the hopes that the doctor can figure out what is making her son “queer”.
There is little doubt that Rondón takes the Bolivarian revolution with a grain of salt. The film is set in the final months of Hugo Chavez’s illness and she includes footage from Venezuelan television of that time when people were praying for the president or shaving their heads in solidarity. She leaves the impression that the people view him as a semi-divine benefactor.
As might be expected, the film has generated a fair amount of controversy in Venezuela. Caracas Chronicles, an anti-Chavista website, has taken the director’s side. While keeping her distance from the violent street protesters, she blames the country’s polarization for the way that her film has been used as ammunition against the government.
Wikipedia reports that “In 2007 she directed and produced Postales de Leningrado (Postcards from Leningrad), an autobiographical film (her parents were members of the Venezuelan guerrilla movement Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN).”
It is a little hard for me to glean her politics from this film other than to say that it is best seen as a study of sexual and racial paradoxes in a country trying to move forward as best it can under very difficult circumstances. As film, it is deeply involving and worth seeing whatever its political orientation, especially for the performance of Samuel Lange Zambrano as Junior, about as fine as one from a child actor as can be imagined.