If you’ve ever taken a survival class, or just spent a long day in the sun, you know that you can live far longer without food (and sex and beauty products and weight loss) than water. And with what seems like an endless supply of clean tap water, bottled water, and even swimming water, most of us are preoccupied with other major health concerns—food, sex, beauty products and weight loss, to name a few. But Jessica Yu, award-winning filmmaker and director of the new film Last Call at the Oasis, says we’re overlooking serious health issues by ignoring the water crisis.
We interviewed Yu about water, health, and her film, which comes out in theaters starting tomorrow. Check out what she had to say:
When people hear “water crisis,” a lot of us feel overwhelmed or guilty and turn away. How did you make a movie about such a serious topic that people would also be able to enjoy?
I think actually if you tell people about the water crisis in this country, they just think it’s happening somewhere else. I mean, I don’t really think it’s on our radar. But I get your point: The idea was not to make a “feel-bad” movie, because that just doesn’t serve anybody’s purpose. I think the goal here was to make the reality of the crisis have an impact through telling stories about people who are wrestling with things that we may all have to wrestle with to some degree, in some cases, quite soon. So it was just trying to tell these stories to hopefully get people to even acknowledge that there is an issue.
I would say as a filmmaker my first priority was to find really good compelling stories with compelling characters and to try to keep that at the forefront so the film is still a film-like experience, it’s not like a lecture or a long news story. That said, of course there was a lot of research that went into it so that you could have the foundation and context in which these stories are being played out, and you have an understanding of what the stakes are.
I read that you were excited to make “water porn,” and I thought that was funny. So what is water porn and why were you excited to make it part of your movie?
Actually, when I was first approached about the subject, the idea of making a film about water was so tempting just purely from a cinematic perspective, because it’s so visual and we all have images in our head of pristine water drifting in slow motion, and glittering drops… There’s so many things that you could do. So we have a lot of idealized shots of water, which is probably more of the “water porn” stuff, where we’d be going like “oh my god, that’s the biggest fountain I’ve ever seen, grab the camera and get some water porn!”
But then you contrast that with the way we actually treat or mistreat and misuse or overuse water, to show how we like to think about water and what we actually do with it, and it’s an interesting disconnect. I liked that as a starting point for the film; you really start to feel the contrast when you see beautiful, abundant water and then you see places where the absence of water is what’s remarkable, or where the pollution of water is undeniable.
You touched on the idea that people think the water crisis is happening somewhere else and won’t happen to us. In making the film, what struck you about its urgency, even in places like the U.S. where we’re not so conscious of it?
Whenever we turn on our taps, we have a seemingly endless supply of water, so I understand why the idea of running out seems abstract. But in the film we worked with a lot of scientists who are studying issues of shortage, and they can measure the rate that Lake Mead has been declining; they’re talking about what happens when Hoover Dam stops generating electricity in a few years. I mean, that’s terrifying–no one ever thought that could happen. They’re also talking about how the aquifer under the Central Valley, which produces a fifth of all of our produce in this country, could be depleted in the next 60 years; that’s within the next generation. These are a couple examples of game-changing dynamics, and I think when you look at them, we are a little too insulated from the reality of what we’re using. A lot of people feel that the groundwater should be like money in the bank to use in emergencies, but we’re just using it to irrigate the fields, and keep up with growth. That’s scary.
The other thing that people probably react to more is the notion of contaminated water. Because if you pollute your water to the extent that it’s not usable, you’ve also effected the quantity of the resource, too— what was very eye-opening was to know how endangered our water can be by what we put in it. We’re the leading producers of chemicals–we have 80,000 chemicals that we use in the United States that contaminate our waterways, but only five of those chemicals are regulated under the Toxic Substances Control Act. Some things are monitored by the clean water act, but almost everything else is not. So those are things I think we really need to have on our radar, just to know: What are we drinking? Is it safe? What do we need to protect ourselves? What do we need to be doing now?