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Jessica Yu's 'Last Call at the Oasis' made her a water activist

Jessica Yu's 'Last Call at the Oasis' is a feature-length documentary on water waste, water quality and water manipulation around the world. Making the film turned her into a water activist.

June 13, 2012|Patt Morrison
  • Director Jessica Yu's new feature-length documentary "Last Call at the Oasis" has turned her into a water activist. Yu won a short-documentary Oscar for "Breathing Lessons: The life and work of Mark O'Brien" in 1997.
Director Jessica Yu's new feature-length documentary "Last… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)

If you want to say that Jessica Yu burst onto the film scene in 1993 with her short "Sour Death Balls," you'd be almost literally right. The film is almost 10 minutes of people trying to handle the disgusting confection. Yu's work wins accolades, including a short-documentary Oscar for "Breathing Lessons," about a writer who spent most of his life in an iron lung. Now she's brought her California chops to bear on"Last Call at the Oasis," a feature-length documentary on water waste, water quality and water manipulation not just here — where more than half of our drinkable public water goes to water lawns and plants outside our homes — but the whole, not-so-wet world over.

When you turn on the faucet now, do you now look at it differently?

Oh yes. I remember seeing a movie with a scene where a couple was arguing in a kitchen, and all I could see was that they left the tap running while they were arguing. I was, like, "Turn the water off, turn the water off!" I was pretty rabid for a while there.

And you practice water conservation at home?

I see it most with the kids. [My] girls basically never flush the toilet. I said, if you go to someone else's house, it's OK.

Growing up in California, my family was very drought-aware. I grew up smugly thinking I knew something about water issues, but really all I knew was drought. We had the bucket in the shower; my parents never wanted a lawn. The whole hillside would go brown, and we would let it.

Do we Americans indulge in magical thinking about water?

That is such a good term for it. It really is an abstraction for Americans, because we can turn on our taps and the water keeps coming out.

I was thinking a good title for the film would be "A River in Egypt," but then I thought it's actually not "denial." Denial means there's evidence you dismiss. This is not even on their radar.

We act like all we have to do is stick a straw in the ground and it'll never end — the way Las Vegas has done with its aquifer.

That was shocking. One thing we haven't been able to do before is measure ground water depletion on a large scale. Jay Famiglietti, the scientist at UC Irvine working with NASA and JPL to study groundwater depletion, looks at water across borders; people in different countries don't necessarily want to share their water knowledge with their neighbors. I've got to say, in the film, the scientists were the unsung heroes. It's not [in their] job description to speak out and maybe they don't get any reward — a lot of time they get flak — but they really feel a moral obligation to say something.

You've undertaken some difficult documentary subjects before, like profiling a man in an iron lung. Water is real but at the same time it's abstract.

The challenge was twofold. From a cinematic perspective, the opportunity to make a film about water is pretty irresistible. I like trying to make it a character in the film. On the other side, the complexity is pretty overwhelming. But I felt I only wanted to do it if I could tackle that complexity and get some sense of the overall picture. I didn't know what that picture was, which made the process of researching and talking to people — that was enough to keep going for months.

What else really shocked you?

When Famiglietti says the aquifer under the Central Valley, which we use to irrigate a lot of the crops that provide one-fourth of the food in this country, could be depleted in as little as 60 years — that absolutely floored me. It always seems like the consequences are much further down the road, but I thought, Wow, this is within, certainly, my kids' generation. That one definitely kept me up at night.

In another clip, Lisa Jackson [administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency] is saying we use over 80,000 chemicals [in water] and only five are regulated by the Toxic Substances Control Act. That's not to say 80,000 chemicals equal 80,000 problems, but all of our waterways are vulnerable to a lot of those chemicals and we don't know what a lot of them are doing. That's pretty upsetting.

So it must have taken great restraint not to just try to seize people by the lapels and say, "You've got to listen!"

I was fascinated by the psychological underpinnings of the water crisis. As you go along, you realize the acceleration and scope of the problems is new, but the issues of drought and shortage and pollution are not. So obviously we have not been able to address these problems. Much as you'd like to grab people by the lapels, you have to tell them stories, you have to make them feel the stakes through the characters they connect with.

Did you feel a need to come up with the swelling music at the end, to finish full of optimism and hope?

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