Avenging the Assault on Water: ''Last Call at the Oasis'' to the Rescue

On the evening of May 5, as I sat watching the environmental documentary Last Call at the Oasis at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema in New York, I couldn’t help but think of another film opening the same weekend, one that would end up demolishing the previous opening-weekend box office record set by the final Harry Potter film.

That other film, The Avengers, features several popular Marvel Comics heroes – including Iron Man, Thor and The Incredible Hulk (the greenest of the superheroes – pun intended) – who are recruited, one by one, to defend against a global threat.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who was making this comparison. Last Call water expert Jay Famiglietti posted his superhero take on The Avengers at National Geographic last Friday.

Last Call, directed by Jessica Yu (recently featured as one of Our Heroes) introduces us to a very different set of idols including scientists and environmental advocates: real-life heroes fighting against the global water crisis, a more formidable foe than whatever disaster The Avengers are up against.

Jay is too humble to have included himself in his roundup of water heroes, which includes Sierra Club Water Sentinel and Michigan farmer Lynn Henning, biologist and herpetologist Tyrone Hayes and Las Vegas water manager Pat Mulroy.

But he makes my list. Jay, a hydrologist and professor at University of California at Irvine, has an astounding ability to communicate hydrologic and Earth System modeling to a general audience. Jay has a particular interest in groundwater depletion caused, in part, by poorly planned development and industrial agriculture.

Jay also captures the attention of New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, who says that the hydrologist’s findings “are thorough and clear, and he presents them…with good-natured patience. For the most part, that is. At one point, contemplating a future of unchecked consumption and political paralysis, he sums it all up in blunt layman’s terms: ‘We're screwed.'” (Who says today’s films lack memorable lines?)

As A.O. Scott notes in his review, “The calm, knowledgeable voices of the experts … make "Last Call at the Oasis" especially scary. Nothing is more unnerving than predictions of an apocalypse delivered by a reasonable person in friendly, conversational tones.”

But is anyone listening?

For Scott, that is the $64,000 question.

One way the question is answered — or perhaps finessed — is by the optimistic, encouraging tone that tends to sneak in at the end. Most examples of the “We're screwed” documentary…end on a note of “Yes, we can.”

While Last Call at the Oasis does end on a hopeful note, if you're not paying close attention you might miss the call to action. The film, inspired by Alex Prud'homme’s book The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Fresh Water in the 21st Century, may leave some asking, “What can I do?” After the screening, I hosted a brief Q&A where several people asked this very question.

According to Participant Media, the public is the key to protecting water resources, and “Take Part,” the Social Action Network of Participant Media, provides some excellent “take action” resources, from no-brainers like “don’t flush garbage down your toilet” to signing the Water Bill of Rights.

People can encourage others – including friends, family and co-workers – to see this film. Word of mouth was a key component to the success of such films as An Inconvenient Truth and The Cove. The film Gasland, another great example, has brought greater awareness to some of the myths propping up hydraulic fracturing.

If you have an interest in, or are involved with, environmental and consumer issues, then this film is a must-see. By inspiring millions of Americans and people around the globe to stand up for water, Last Call will no doubt help shape the dialog around water issues for years to come.

In The Avengers, it is up to supernatural superheroes to save the planet. It will take some heroism from each and every one of us to reverse the damage that has been inflicted on our water resources and fight for clean water for all.

The recruitment has begun.