Following in the footsteps of other agitprop documentaries like Food Inc. and An Inconvenient Truth comes Last Call at the Oasis, an eye-opening survey of the global water crisis. Academy Award winning director Jessica Yu turns what could be a rather staid, depressing topic into something that isn’t just insightful, but also beautiful (the opening credits alone will give you a new-found appreciation for the look of water). She’s not alone—the film features insight from a range of experts, from activist Erin Brockovich to author Alex Prud’Homme and even actor Jack Black. ELLE.com spoke with Yu to find out why water matters—and the merits of flushing.
ELLE: Why make a documentary about water?
Jessica Yu: I would say that the appeal of making a film about water was twofold. As a filmmaker, to make something as visual and varied as water is irresistible. In the film I wanted to make water a character; we see the presence or absence of water. It’s a very beautiful thing to film, and in its absence it’s really painful to see. That was one thing. But I also wanted to see how all the pieces fit together. It is shocking when you see what’s going on that it’s just not on our radar. There was a time when I wanted to call it A River in Egypt but it’s not denial—here it’s something that doesn’t even register. So I thought there was an opportunity to paint a picture for people. There’s a lot that people can do. It’s very hard to reduce it to these five things or these six things, and when you understand how water is embedded into everything we use and how we enjoy it daily, there are so many fronts that are problems, but [also] so many ways that we can make it better. It’s unlimited, in a sense, and the fact that we use water and depend on it in little ways, a little change over a lifetime is big.
ELLE: Have you made any major changes in your own life?
JY: It’s more in the way that we talk to the children—I have two little girls—about water. It’s very easy for them to change their habits…although now they barely ever flush the toilet! [Laughs] OK, “If it’s yellow let it mellow,” but there’s something to be said for flushing the toilet! With kids, they get it a little bit quicker because they’re young and they don’t have as many preconceived notions.
ELLE: How important is it to have someone like Erin Brockovich or Jack Black as the “face” of the global water crisis awareness movement?
JY: That is such a good question, because even you could just take it back from not even the face of the movement, but faces of the stories. We were very consciously trying to find people wrestling with these stories on the ground right now, issues we will all have to face sooner or later. Otherwise it will feel too abstract or like a series of informational dialogues. We wanted people to understand, “Oh my God this is what you have to do,” and you understand what the stakes are.
ELLE: The research component must have been a huge part of the making of the film.
JY: There was about six months of pure research before we started filming, and then we were researching as we were filming because it is a moving target. In the beginning there were the usual suspects, like Las Vegas, the poster child for urban water woes. But the Middle East story, that came very close to the end of the production. It surprised us in a lovely way to find out that one of our most inspiring examples of water cooperation was in the Middle East. Who would think that?! It brings home this idea that on something as crucial as water, there’s a point where people can put aside political differences. It’s always tricky with an issue film to [decide] what is the note that you want to leave people with, and I didn’t want an overly optimistic, “Come on everybody! We can turn the ship around!” It needed to be grounded in a certain reality. Finding that example was beyond anything we thought we could find.
ELLE: So were you left hopeful or hopeless after making this film?
JY: I would say it is still somewhere in between. The reason I say this is because of the thing that [water expert and professor at University of California, Irvine] Jay Famiglietti says at the end, that it’s not a solvable problem but it’s a manageable one. Now that sounds pretty depressing, but I like shifting goals to, ‘Can we just do better?’ I think that acknowledges human nature and the reality of the way we work in a more positive way. It could sound like it’s giving up, but I truly believe that the potential to do things is great. We see examples of people when they’ve rallied around a situation, like smoking or something like that, and there are ways that change happens. So with water the biggest thing, the first step, is acknowledging a problem.