Oscar-winning director Jessica Yu writes about the making of her new documentary Last Call at the Oasis. Brought to you by the same company behind the groundbreaking Food, Inc. and Waiting for ‘Superman’, Last Call at the Oasis features a number of leading scientists and activists at the forefront of the water crisis, including Erin Brockovich. The subject of glowing reviews after its world premiere at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, the film is coming to theaters in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, May 4th and will later expand to other cities.
When we started Last Call at the Oasis, our goals were ambitious and the challenge was considerable. We wanted to illuminate the water crisis and its many facets… and there are many, many facets. Generally, when we hear “water crisis” we think “drought”—usually “drought happening somewhere else in the world.” We don’t factor in climate change, groundwater depletion, contamination, outdated water laws, the battle between industry and the environment and complications of psychology, politics and regulation, and we certainly don’t think of it all happening here in the U.S.. What’s going on is big, and it is crucial that we understand it. This is water—essential for all life. Could the stakes be any higher?
The first step was to educate ourselves; my producer, Elise Pearlstein, associate producer Sandra Keats and I had a good six months of pure research, and we continued to process information through the two years of making the film. In getting the most current state of the issues, we were lucky to be able to go to the source: The scientists and researchers who have been working on this front for a long time. They’re the unsung heroes of Last Call at the Oasis. They’ve been in the trenches, studying the stresses on our water supply from overuse to pollution.
I found these scientists to be fascinating and admirable characters in the film, not just because of what they’ve discovered but because they’re extending themselves beyond the traditional scientist’s role. Their job description does not include holding press conferences and trying to sound the clarion call, but the scientists in the film realize it is not enough to just publish their work in a scientific journal. It’s the “tree falling in the forest” syndrome: Have you done your part if you put out work that will never reach the public? No, says James Famiglietti, who studies groundwater depletion. As he told us, “If you smelled smoke in a crowded theater, you would shout.”
Our film is about these personal stories—of people smelling smoke and standing up to say something. With the sweeping scope of this film, we knew it was crucial to find stories that connected emotionally. The people in the film—scientists, farmers, environmentalists, policy makers and ordinary folk just trying to raise their families—were very open to expressing the problems they were encountering. The power of the film draws on their willingness to share their stories.
Perhaps the most important character in the film is water itself. I wanted to layer a sense of its presence in every story, in the linking images that take us from place to place around the country and the planet. For something so alluring and cinematic, water is a complex subject and a moving target. Some of the indicators of change are tangible—the depth of Lake Mead, the glacial retreat in the Himalayas and the impact of climate change on the water cycle, which is creating more drought in low-rainfall areas and floods in higher-precipitation areas. Others, like new contaminants in the water supply or the depletion of aquifers, are more subtle and difficult to visualize.
To me, it speaks to the complexity of trying to convey how endangered the resource is, especially here in the U.S.. As long as water flows freely from our taps, the water crisis seems an abstraction. For a while I contemplated calling the film A River in Egypt, but I realized that the problem isn’t denial—which implies willful dismissal of facts—but ignorance. Water problems barely register on our list of concerns.
To help people understand what’s at stake, we knew we couldn’t deluge them with data. The film is crafted as a series of journeys… through the eyes of those who are on the ground, wrestling with circumstances that may face all of us. It’s my hope that the total effect is more empowering than overwhelming, as the process of making this film was for me.
At the Toronto International Film Festival, program director Thom Powers deemed it a “feel-angry movie.” He later amended it to a “feel-smart movie.” I like both labels, as they emphasize the “feel” part. While I can’t promise what viewers are going to feel after watching Last Call, I can promise that they won’t look at water the same way again.
To find out more about Last Call at the Oasis, and to see if it’s coming to your city, visit lastcallattheoasis.com.