Last Call at the Oasis

B+ Documentary

  • Directed by Jessica Yu

How do you judge a political documentary? Artistic and technical merit? How well it argues its case? Is it entertaining? How important is the subject? Do you agree with what it says?

Jessica Yu’s examination of the water crisis looming over the human race does reasonably well on all of those criteria. On most them, and especially the first and last ones, it hits the ball out of the park.

Water covers most of this planet’s surface, yet the human race is rapidly running out of safe drinking water. Unless you’re deep in denial, this shouldn’t come as a surprise, and this documentary makes it that much harder to remain in denial. (Of course, if you are in denial, you won’t see the movie. last_call_oasis copyThat’s another problem with political documentaries.)

With the help of original and stock footage, news clips, startling graphics,  informative animation, and experts speaking directly into the camera (including the real Erin Brockovich), Yu shows us how, as more water is tapped upriver, communities downriver are doomed, how industrial pollution is making the water we have unsuitable for consumption, and how global warming is making the problem worse.

Many of the stories are heart-breaking. We meet farmers who have had to give up because there is no water for their crops and livestock, and communities with huge cancer rates, courtesy of the industrial plants that share their water table.

The future looks even worse. As water levels drop in the Colorado river, Hoover Dam will stop producing electricity and Las Vegas will become a ghost town. So will Los Angeles. The American way of life will cease to exist.

Many so-called solutions won’t really help. Desalinization (removing salt from sea water) costs a fortune and burns huge amounts of fossil fuels. And America’s favorite personal solution–bottled water–is a scan. It’s no more safe than what comes out of your faucet.

Yu shows us one economical fix that could help solve the problem, but it’s a hard sell: recycled sewer water. There’s nothing wrong with it, we’re told, and it’s probably safer than what you’re drinking. But people’s visceral reaction will be difficult to overcome.

The film’s funniest sequence involves marking experts trying to find ways to sell such recycled water as bottled drinking water. Jack Black comes in to pitch "Porcelain Spring."

Yu either has a bigger budget than Micheal Moore, or she’s a genius at stretching a buck. The movie’s opening credits use expensive-looking flashy graphics of the sort you’d expect on a network commercial or a superhero movie. The graphics continue throughout, and even the talking heads are well lit and made up. All of this gloss, along with the occasional humor,  help make Last Call at the Oasis watchable, but no less frightening.

I saw this documentary at the 2012 San Francisco International Film Festival.