Eau Crap: SFF Journal, Entry Six

Festivals Last Call at the Oasis 2

Published on November 2nd, 2011 | by Charles H. Meyer

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“Last Call at the Oasis” (Jessica Yu, 2011) was screened at 2:30 P.M. on Tuesday, November 1 at S.C.A.D.’s Trustees Theater as part of the 2011 Savannah Film Festival.

Light pollution, it turns out, is the least of our problems. Just as I was recovering, having consumed the palate cleanser of a good Shakespearian war movie, from the toxic shock of learning that there was even such a thing as light pollution (whose steady increase, by the way, I forgot to mention, is making it increasingly difficult for astronomers to keep track of asteroids with the potential to snuff out all life on earth), I dutifully took my seat in S.C.A.D.’s Trustees Theater to see Jessica Yu’s new documentary “Last Call at the Oasis” and to thereby hopefully learn all that I needed to know about the global crisis of clean water accessibility.

Well, having seen the film, I’m pleased to report that Evian, my bottled water of choice, is still safe to drink (as far as I can tell), but maybe not as safe as recycled sewage water. But don’t let that happy thought comfort you too much. As one scientist the filmmakers interview concisely explains, “We’re totally screwed.”

I really don’t think that I can fully convey in words (but saying that helps, right?) the absolute necessity that everyone on earth see this film, surely the most important documentary of the year. (Even so, the theater was half empty at a festival whose screenings of narrative films are routinely fully packed, with many hopeful but ticketless patrons turned away after waiting an hour in the standby line.) Hell, gather your pets around the set, too, once the film turns up on PBS or Netflix, if for no other reason than to let them console you with their blissful obliviousness to the wretched ecological calamities that we continue to burden upon ourselves through the devastating stress we inflict on the environment. And if you think that I’m overreacting, then you’re in denial, you’re ignorant, or you’re just another victim of corporate-sponsored misinformation who needs to watch at least a half-dozen recent documentaries, obviously including the one currently under discussion, but also “Turtle: The Incredible Journey,” “Farmaggedon” and the above-alluded-to “The City Dark”.

“Last Call at the Oasis” is spectacularly well made. It’s as pleasing to the eye as any documentary that I’ve ever seen, in spite of–in fact, because of–its urgent, doomsday-style, oh-my-goodness-what-are-we-going-to-do-to-extricate-ourselves-from-this-utter-quagmire message. That is, the film’s great aesthetic appeal is effective at making it easier for us to swallow its fearful messages about our drinking water, which, all over the world, is being rendered horribly, poisonously unpotable in myriad ways by criminally unrestricted herbicides, antibiotics fed to and then pissed and pooped out by farm animals whose urine and feces get spread–untreated–on fields where they seep down into the aquifers from which our drinking water gets extracted, and the many thousands of different kinds of partially digested pharmaceuticals that we humans ourselves excrete every day that don’t even get removed by the most thorough sewage treatment processes that, thankfully, do succeed in removing larger debris like condoms and crack vials from the water we drink, bathe in, and brush our teeth with.

What makes “Last Call at the Oasis” so beautiful? First of all, it opens with stunning high-shutter-speed cinematography capturing crystal-clear splashes of water leaping and dancing about in slow motion. We also see some great images of water gushing through mountain streams. Shot in gorgeous high-definition video, the film seduces us with ostensibly pristine rivers, lakes, and oceans, thoroughly endearing water to us (it’s sad, of course, that something so evidently necessary for our existence is in want of further endearment) so that when we are later introduced to repellent images of polluted rivers (the part of the Jordan River where Jesus Christ was baptized is currently an icky cesspool, hopefully not for long, though, thanks to an important group of people known as Friends of the Earth Middle East) and dried-up lakes, and emphasizes how prohibitively expensive and counterproductive it is to do what seems to many people an obvious solution but that is actually one of the worst ideas out there–the desalination of salt water.

At about the film’s midpoint, when audience morale has dipped to its nadir, the actor/comedian Jack Black swoops in to rescue us with his cherubic goofball hilariousness. But this sequence turns out to be about much more than comic relief. The great wet hope for us living things as water-dependent beings turns out to be a beguilingly simple solution: recycled water.

The big problem, though, is that most of the water consumed by the average household gets flushed down the toilet, and there is a fierce public aversion to drinking recycled sewage water, no matter how clean anyone says it is. But beverage companies have succeeded remarkably well in selling bottled tap water to the paranoid masses, so the filmmakers wondered if a good advertising campaign might convince people to overcome their irrational but very powerful fear of water that is revolting by association although nevertheless perfectly safe to drink. (The natural decontamination of water takes such a long time that we naturally, on a very deep and intuitive level, are disinclined to believe that it even can be cleaned. To rework an old adage, don’t drink and eat where you piss and shit.) To that end, some marketing wizards were enlisted to come up with a few clever product names like “Porcelain Springs,” “New Water” and–my favorite, although it didn’t end up getting used–”Eau Crap,” slap the names on bottles of recycled water, bring in Jack Black as spokesperson, and set out to convert public opinion. It’s presented as only a semi-earnest endeavor, but it’s very funny, it lightens the mood, and it effectively delivers the kind of radical, satirical message of some of the best segments of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with John Stewart.”

Seriously, though, the essential work of protecting our drinking water shouldn’t be left solely to brave, tireless environmental activists like Erin Brockovich, Lynn Henning and Tyrone Hayes, all of whom you’ll have the pleasure of meeting in “Last Call at the Oasis,” a film that you should see as soon as possible so that you can better grasp the deadly seriousness of the problems we currently face in regard to our water. And then, finally, you can start thinking about what you might want to do to help.

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is Editor-in-Chief of Cinespect.



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