Our Heroes: Jessica Yu, Director of ''Last Call at the Oasis''

Jessica Yu is a California-based director of both documentaries and scripted films.  The Oscar-winning filmmaker has most recently trained her lens on the world water crisis, with a particular emphasis on the United States – a nation that is little aware of its burgeoning water quality and quantity problems. The film, Last Call at the Oasis, which opens tomorrow in New York and Los Angeles, illuminates the vital role water plays in our lives, exposes the defects in the current system and depicts communities already struggling with its ill-effects.

In Last Call, Jessica highlights the work of numerous water heroes including activist Erin Brockovich, biologist Tyrone Hayes, factory farm watchdog Lynn Henning and hydrologist (and our friend) Jay Famiglietti.

Jessica recently took some time to talk with us in New York about the origins of the movie, her newfound passion for water footprinting and why moving to Canada isn’t a very good option.

Below you can read our edited discussion, and you can listen to the whole 18-minute interview by clicking on the audio player (above left) or downloading a podcast.

Was Last Call at the Oasis an idea that you had in the back of your head for a while or did someone tip you off to the water crisis issue?

Actually I was approached by Diane Weyermann, at Participant (Media). She’s the head of documentaries there and we always wanted to work on something together. She approached me about it and of course the appeal, as a filmmaker, was the opportunity to make a film about water with all of the different ways you can shoot it. And how we idealize water and then the way that we actually treat, or mistreat, the resource; that’s an interesting disconnect that already was starting to percolate in my mind.

A colleague of mine went to a screening last week in Newark, New Jersey for a theater full of high school kids. Afterwards their questions in a Q&A session were all about how they can’t believe people can drink wastewater. And you did a New York Times OpEd recently about it. What do you think our fascination is with it?

You know, it’s funny that when you look at all the issues related to water – quantity and quality, climate change, politics, regulation – people want to know: What can I drink? That’s the number one question. So I think it’s always that visceral concern first. But that’s where I think the fascination with recycled water, or reclaimed wastewater, comes from. We fixate on that stuff.  I mean, look at how many bottles of water we can choose from.

So do you still have any “Porcelain Springs” bottles hanging around?

I do! You can’t really bring them very easily, because I do have some other Porcelain Springs designs that we have. They will be on eBay soon, I'm sure.

You're from California, so as you were making this film, and learning more and more about the water crisis, was there ever a moment when you thought, “It’s looking dire here, maybe we should get out?”

Absolutely. When we were researching California, I was Googling “moving to Canada,” and we were thinking about Vancouver.  And then you meet Erin Brockovich and she’s like, “They've got all sorts of pollution problems in Canada.”  So you realize that that’s not the point, it’s more the idea that we can’t opt out, there’s not another kind of water you can drink. But it was funny for a while, and when I get really discouraged, I would look up Vancouver real estate. That was my guilty little thing.

So after making this film, have you changed some of your own water habits?

I'd say one thing was the water footprint of things that we consume; how all of our consumption contains some price of water. That idea has really stayed with me.  Thinking about how much we own and buy and the water that was required, that’s probably something I think about more.

So as you were making the film, there was a message you wanted to convey but you also wanted to tell a story. How did you balance those?

The stories need to come first.  And so my focus was: We know there is a certain fundamental amount of information that you need to understand to have a context for the stories and what’s at stake. But I think focusing on the stories and the characters – if you pick the right ones, you can understand what these people are facing, what this town is facing, what this environment is facing.

The other thing is people like to think of themselves as logical beings; just give them the facts and everyone will make the logical decision. But our decisions are really more emotionally based. And so if people aren’t connecting with something that they've come to identify with, then it’s very easy to just tune out.  That was another motivation for telling stories.

When you wrapped the film was there any topic you wished you could have added, or was there anything new that came up?

It was a moving target. It had to not be about the most up-to-date information because that’s going to change. But there were a couple of things that I thought were really interesting. One was the notion of pricing as being a helpful curb to overuse. I mean, you make people pay more for water, they value it more.  We've seen it in Singapore and other places, and it’s worked really, really well.

Then the other one was Erin Brockovich talking how things might be different if we could hold people criminally accountable for pollution. That was another really good point.

Pricing is definitely very interesting, because it’s a third-rail issue. There’s water as a human right versus pricing as a new management strategy. That’s a tough one to get in the middle of.

Do you want to be the politician who is going to be working with water bills? A lot of people we talk to, like in our man-on-the-street stuff, they were saying, well, water should be free, that’s just part of being alive.  That attitude makes it really hard to raise the price of water. It also makes it hard for a politician to run on the platform of “Let’s build a new sewer waste management system.” Those are just not things people go out of their way to support.

So it’s human nature to pay attention to the crisis in front of you. But water is such a huge issue that you really need a lot of people behind you. What does it take to get the general public A) even caring, and then B) acting?

Well if I were king I would turn off the water literally for like five minutes once a week! It’s almost like we have a failure of imagination in some ways.  I don’t blame people for feeling that it’s abstract because they always get water out of their tap. For me what was important was seeing the big picture, to see how all these issues interconnect, because then you see that what you do here matters there.  And if you pollute this water there, you take that water out of the quantity that you would have to use.  So understanding how things fit together makes you realize that there’s no way you can be immune to water problems and water issues. It’s a closed system… that’s the nature of the hydrologic cycle.

Other than that, it’s hard if people don’t feel like it’s happening in their backyards. There have been some really fine films and books about water issues. A lot of times they focus on one aspect or they are about places where there’s life or death crisis. And so people tend to think that water problems are just happening somewhere else. That’s why we thought that it was a good opportunity to look at what’s happening in the United States and seeing that okay, maybe we don’t have the same issues of quantity (although we're not doing so great in some places), but in terms of quality and in terms of what we're putting into our water – some could argue we're the leading producers of chemicals that we're letting into our waterways.

Right, and it’s also about avoiding constantly giving a doomsday scenario to people – that these connections and the complexity can be a good thing!

Right, that’s really true isn’t it? I feel like people have to be really careful about the horror movie aspect.  Of course, there are things that we should be really freaked out about. There is a very short timeframe in which some of these things are coming down. The aquifer into the Central Valley, where one-fifth of our produce is grown, that could be gone in 60 years. But you can’t just motivate people by fear. Maybe that’s how we get their attention, but there has got to be some promise of a reward for smaller behaviors.  We can’t just expect everyone to just throw up their hands the next day and become water activists.

Let’s say someone has seen the movie, they're motivated, they're thinking “We've got do something!” And then they step out of the theater and say: “What do I do first?” What would you say?

This sounds like it’s passing the buck, but it’s really true: There’s a whole other component that Participant Media creates with films like this and so if you go to TakePart.com/LastCall there is a list of actions you can take. There’s links to other groups that have been involved, there’s a whole social action campaign that you can become involved in. It’s funny because I think some people wanted a prescription at the end. That’s what I used to do, but you realize that with water you could just write a phone book of things that you could do to change.  There are certain very obvious things: take out your lawn, get a front-loading washer, stop drinking bottled water or depending on bottled water. But it seems a little bit reductive to go for those kinds of things. And then there are things on the policy level that we could be supporting a lot more.  But the good news is that there are so many fronts on which you can do something. So that’s what we're hoping: that people won’t be overwhelmed by feeling there is so much to do, but feel empowered by the thought that there are so many things that can be done to help.

If you had the magical power to change one problem that you've raised in your movie, what do you think it would be?

It’s hard, because I'd probably have to pick one on quantity and one on quality. Geez, I would say that our blind dependence on pumping groundwater is something that scares me because it’s hard to know how much groundwater is left, and that should be our money in the bank for emergency times. We're using it to try to keep up with the demand rather than addressing supply. I don’t know how you would solve that, but I think that’s a big issue.

And then – okay, magically – on the quality side, I think the notion that Tyrone Hayes brings up in the film – he’s the professor at Berkeley who has been fighting against atrazine pollution in waterways for 14 years now – he brings up the precautionary principle. In Europe they do not give the benefit of the doubt to a new chemical. They say you need to prove that it’s safe before it goes on the market. In the United States it’s more, well, it’s on the market, you keep testing it and if there is a problem let us know.  I wouldn’t say that we have 80,000 chemicals, therefore we have 80,000 problems. Not everything gets in our water.  But we don’t have the protections in place to deal with it when something does go awry. So either you can magically invoke the precautionary principle to apply it to everything we have, or maybe have some teeth in our tools to deal with polluters.

It’s sad that we have to think of legislative changes as a magical thing.

Oh you just brought me down!

But it’s good to know!

When I heard about that there was this “duh” moment: “We're not doing that?”  I think we're into such an anti-regulatory spirit that it’s hard to remind people why we want a certain amount of it in our lives in the first place. But again, like with fracking, until someone fracks in some very high-class backyard, it’s going to be hard to turn that around.