The production company that brought us An Inconvenient Truth, about global climate change, and Food, Inc., about the American food industry, now tackles the international water crisis with this thoroughly researched, cleverly presented, awfully depressing documentary by Jessica Yu. Since winning an Oscar for her documentary short Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien, Yu has carved out an eclectic career of esoteric documentaries (In the Realms of the Unreal, Protagonist) and popular television (The West Wing, Grey’s Anatomy). Here, she builds what she calls a “structured mosaic” of startling statistics and memorable personalities that leave a distressing impression—if not complete understanding—of the decline of the world’s water supply.
Last Call at the Oasis addresses the deterioration of both the quantity and quality of the earth’s drinking water. Water may cover 70 percent of the planet’s surface, but only one percent of that is potable—and it’s disappearing fast.
Focusing on the United States since America has the largest water footprint in the world, the film marvels at water usage in the city of Las Vegas, where fountains and canals create a fantasy world for tourists in the middle of the desert, and the California Central Valley, parts of which are semi-arid yet which grows one-quarter of the country’s food. All that water has to come from somewhere, and when those sources are tapped, it’s not without consequences. The filmmakers then visit Australia, where a 10-year drought has devastated farmers, to demonstrate where the U.S. could be headed.
What about the water cycle, you might ask, which taught us in grade school how H2O is recycled as liquid, vapor and ice but never really lost? Although this very question is acknowledged in the film, exactly how we’re using water faster than it can be replenished isn’t sufficiently explained before we move on to the next issue: water quality.
In places like Midland, Texas (childhood home of George W. Bush), and Lenawee County, Mich., regular citizens are encountering unacceptable levels of contamination in their drinking water from toxins dumped there by polluting factories and lagoons of cow poop on industrial farm operations. Environmental activist Erin Brockovich, as outspoken as she’s portrayed in the eponymous film starring Julia Roberts (clips of which are included in the documentary), and family farmer Lynn Henning, utterly charming with her silver mullet and unassuming courage, confront an impossible problem because, statistics show, the Environmental Protection Agency, the organization tasked with safeguarding our drinking water, can’t or won’t.
With inspired graphics, Yu illustrates how complicated the issue is, alluding to the amount of water required to produce a steak or a T-shirt or a lightbulb. The film doesn’t delve into how these products consume H2O, however, in another example of information incompletely delivered.
There’s a lot of ground to cover, however, including how to pull ourselves out of this mess. Recycling wastewater is one solution that’s already been implemented in Singapore and elsewhere, but there’s a psychological hurdle to overcome: Who wants to drink toilet water, no matter how clean it’s proved to be? In a promotion that includes an endorsement by Jack Black, the film wittily explores what such a campaign might look like.
Last Call at the Oasis attempts to rally a movement behind conservation but is also resigned that the problem is too big at this point for individual action to be the answer. The film’s note of hope lies with Friends of the Earth Middle East, the only regional organization that brings together Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians, even during times of war. With this group, Yu suggests that even as we’re reaching (or have already reached) a tipping point where water will be a cause of war all over the world, its conservation could also be a reason for peace.
Director: Jessica Yu
Starring: Peter Gleick, Erin Brockovich, James S. Famiglietti, Robert Glennon, Pat Mulroy, Tyrone Hayes, Alex Prud’homme, Tim Barnett, Lynn Henning, Gidon Bromberg, Monqeth Mehyar, nader Al-Khateeb, Paul Rozin
Release Date: May 4, 2012