Filmmaker Ahbra Perry talks with Philippine Tatler about the painstaking and life-changing seven years she had with the documentary "Power of Pearl" and the lessons the world must know from the altruistic South Sea pearl farmers on the front lines of climate change.

Power of Pearl: Farm Beneath The Sea, directed by Ahbra Perry and Taylor Higgins, recently had its preview screening at SM Aura Premier. Attended by guests from society and diplomatic corps, the private film showing was presented by Jewelmer and Philippine Tatler with the aim of showing the furtive life in the pearl farms in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Australia, the growing industry, as well as the alarming state of these islands and the environment as a whole.

The pearl is the barometer for the health of the ocean. Any change in the climate, seas, and acquatic life may have an impact on the pearls. Today, South Sea pearls are farmed in marine waters that boast the greatest biodiversity on the planet, but not for long as the oceans are currently under threat. These may come in many forms like rising temperatures and shifting weather patterns causing super typhoons, pollution and ocean acidification causing mass bleaching to coral reefs, as well as rising sea levels that slowly eats up the islands where the farmers have established their communities for many decades.

Through this film, directors Perry and Higgins hope that more people will be enlightened with the pearl production process, the life of the pearl farmers and their struggles against the forces of nature, and the world's most current and pressing environmental issues. Power of Pearl, is a story about finding the balance between man and nature, so we can preserve and repair the world we have for generations to come.

How was Jewelmer different from other pearl farms you’ve been?

Ahbra Perry: Jewelmer is very unique. You can feel the energy and the attitude… the community is great... and part of what makes Jewelmer so special and so interesting is the passion that they feel, and the heart, and the intention that they have when they’re producing pearls... It’s a community. It carries that spirit of the Philippines [bayanihan] in such a true sense. Everyone is working together with so much love and real beauty coming from all these people and I think that’s what creates beautiful pearls.

You know, the pearl is a time capsule of the nature’s health, of everyone that interacts with that oyster. Anyone that touches or handles that shell and what kind of emotions or intentions they come at it with is going to affect because the oysters are sensitive. It’s going to affect the pearl, it’s going to be recorded in the pearl. I think that’s also what makes pearl farming such a great example or a blueprint for the rest of the world that we can live in a more sustainable fashion, that we can manage and balance. Making a profit, taking care and supporting our people, and also the planet.


Did you know that it will take this long to make this film? How was the creative and production process? 

This is our first documentary and it took us 7 or 8 years to finish the film. We had to do some things on the side just to be able to step away from the film and reflect on it. Because it’s such an undertaking. We didn’t want to have a narrow-porthole-kind-of vision. Over such a long period of time, you grow and your perspective changes. What did you shoot 6 years ago and how you feel about it today… you know. That’s why a film is very much like a pearl. 

What drove you to make a film about this? 

Taylor and I started doing an educational series for the Cultured Pearls Association of America. That’s a group of people from all around the world and the videos were for educating people about cultured pearls. So you have Tahitian pearls, Australian, even freshwater in China. And so Taylor and I went on this trip to make a six-disc set of DVDs that retailers and wholesalers could use to educate people about what it is to make a pearl, what goes into it and why it’s special. And I think Jewelmer was one of the last places that we went to in our trip. Or maybe in the middle. But anyways, we landed in Manila, came to the farms, and immediately my breath was taken away.

It is one of the most purest, most unique, most honest groups of people and environment that you can’t help but take a moment and try to take everything in. And so both of us, we looked at each other and said that we really should come back here.

Tatler Asia

Why did you choose the pearl as your subject in this documentary to tackle on issues about conserving and protecting the environment? What makes it a good storyteller?

It’s very prudent for pearl farmers around the world to be stewards of the seas and the environment because if you have bad ocean health, probably you won’t have great pearls. It’s an easy window to look through.

Starting off, we didn’t know the depth of what we are getting into or how much they actually have to teach the world. We found out that a lot of—almost all—pearl farmers, especially of South Sea pearls, are on sustainable efforts. They are taking care of the environment, and it goes hand in hand with taking care of the people around you.

In order to do that, the people have to create a healthy, united community. And that is a beautiful thing to see develop while we were filming and ask ourselves like “what are we doing in America?” and how can we emulate them.

So you didn’t know at the start that it would take you this long to complete the film?

No, we certainly didn’t. We thought it would just take us a year or two to tell the story of the pearl. We were so wrong. This film dictated its own timeline. We couldn’t tell when it would be done. Three years ago I think we thought we were finished making the film and then typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines came and immediately Taylor and I were at the phone with Jacques [Christophe] and immediately we were on a plane back on the farms. Things happen when you’re telling a story and I still think there is more the story could tell. This is just 'chapter one'.

Also, Jewelmer in Palawan is kind of a best example of where everything goes right. But I guess we needed more of a subject base so that people could see that this is also a part of pearl farming. So having more examples kind of bolstered the case of the film and allowed us to see other pearl farms in other countries around the coral triangle.

Find out Jewelmer's pearl farming production process with pearl ambassadors Marc Nelson and Rovilson Fernandez

During filming, were there any new learnings or discoveries for you that kind of deepened your appreciation of the environment?

I think every day of filming was life-changing for us. When we were out in the farms we learned new things everyday. Jacques [Christophe] took us out to see some of the bleached coral reefs and in a sense, it was traumatizing to see. It inspired us to figure out how we could get this message out as quick as possible to stop this from happening.

Some of the issues that became evident during our filming were sea level rise, marine biodiversity and the harmony of everything to one another… One thing I learned is there’s a lot of trust that has to happen in the pearl farm, trust to one another, to yourself... to get you through situations that are out of your control. Also, respect for nature. She is uncontrollable and the only thing that we can do is try to respect her and live in balance with her.

Tatler Asia
Above One of Jewelmer's pearl farms in Palawan

Did you face any struggle during filming?

We were out on remote islands, we’re not filming in LA or New York (laughs), when something of an equipment dies you can’t call a film store to easily replace it. We had to improvise and have the courage to make through it. I think also like the community in each pearl farm, we had to rely on each other. It’s hard. 

We had to earn their trust and create an intimate relationship with them. Showing the surface of anything is not a good idea. It took a little while to build trust and for the people to know; for us to grow and learn what kind of people they were and how we can make sure we give respect to everything that they do.

Through this film what kind of message you’d like to convey? First, to the general audience.

As we go on to the future, it’s important for us to look in the past as well as discuss how can we move and progress in a more sustainable  fashion. How can new businesses learn from pearl farmers and use those ideals—the respect that they have for one another and to the environment—into their businesses as practices and move forward in a positive way. I think what we choose to do as a world can be extremely impactful in the next 20 years.

How about to the governing bodies of the countries you’ve been to?

I think in an ideal world we won’t have to pass these new laws in order to take good care of the environment because it should already be innate in us. I just want to make a story that will inspire politicians hopefully to put things into play that will set the world in the future, so that future generations would enjoy these beautiful islands that we have as well. 

I think when the Philippines work together as a nation and it has a great voice, the whole world will listen. Typhoon Haiyan was an example of that.

Are you planning to bring this film to a festival and a wide release?

Absolutely. We’re working with our producers from New York, Dani Leonard and Alex Cirillo [Big Vision Creative], who are also here in the special preview. They are also inspired to bring this film to as many people as possible. I think we’ll have a big premiere at the end of the year somewhere then we’ll tour the film. I don’t think Taylor and I will stop until the breath is gone from our lungs and our shoes have worn out. Jacques, as well as the pearl farmers from Indonesia and Australia, inspired us to be those kind of people. Our job as artists is to do what we can and hopefully the whole world respond to it. If we did a good job and banged enough drums, made enough noise, I think people are gonna listen.



Is there anything that changed in your heart, way of life, or philosophy because of this film?

Nothing is wasted. I think that comes to us both in materials and in opportunities. Everyday is gonna be a new adventure but also we need to be grateful for everything that we have.

Pearl farmers stick that oyster in the water like a kiss goodbye and with so much faith and hope that in five years it will produce a beautiful pearl. I think that’s how you must also see most things. Do what you can, the best that you can.