Review: ‘Vanishing Pearls’ shows fallout after Gulf disasters

Elton Encalade and Villere Demolle in "Vanishing Pearls."
Elton Encalade and Villere Demolle in “Vanishing Pearls.”

The decimation of the Gulf Coast oyster industry following the one-two punches of Hurricane Katrina and the Deep Horizon oil spill gets a much-deserved close-up in the enlightening, if sometimes sluggish, documentary “Vanishing Pearls.”

Shot from 2010 to 2013, the film focuses on the travails of the small fishing village of Pointe à la Hache, La. Writer-producer-director Nailah Jefferson tracks the fallout from those two disasters, particularly the 200-million-gallon BP oil spill. The institutional racism that has plagued the community’s largely African American oystermen also gets discussed.

At the center of Jefferson’s recounting is Byron Encalade, a Pointe à la Hache resident and president of the Louisiana Oysterman’s Assn. His family fishery dried up as a result of the oil spill and, the film posits, the toxic impact of BP’s clean-up efforts on the Gulf’s seafood supply. (Oysters, shrimp, crab and much more were affected.)

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Encalade, seen traveling to Washington, D.C., and London on behalf of the local fishing trade, makes for a strong, heartfelt spokesman, as do his family members and the other oystermen interviewed here.

Government-appointed lawyer Kenneth Feinberg is brought in to administer BP’s $20-billion disaster victim compensation fund. But interviews with the canny attorney hardly clarify what becomes an elusive, complex and deficient process for claims and clean-up. Still, Feinberg’s apparent double-talk speaks volumes.

Chats with politicos, lawyers, environmentalists and journalists round out this film. Though dizzyingly informative and diffuse at times, it’s a well-shot portrait that’s at its best when it eschews the facts for the folks.

“Vanishing Pearls.” No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes. At the Downtown Independent, Los Angeles.