"Last Call at the Oasis" paints a haunting, even poetic, portrait of the global water crisis. Will anyone listen?
Here’s the short version of humanity’s relationship with water, as delivered by hydrologist Jay Famiglietti in Jessica Yu’s compelling and often gorgeous documentary “Last Call at the Oasis”: “We’re screwed.” Yes, we should all install low-flush toilets and plant gardens that require less watering, but conservation is simply insufficient to cope with a global fresh-water crisis that involves many interlocking factors: overpopulation and overdevelopment, depletion of groundwater, climate change, and widespread contamination.
Solving the human race’s worsening water problem requires overcoming what Yu’s film terms the “Hydro-Illogical Cycle,” which is defined by the belief that because most of the Earth’s surface is covered in wet stuff, there’s no problem. As one horrified woman proclaims in a hilarious segment that explores the possibility of marketing recycled and purified sewage water (to be sold under the brand name Porcelain Springs), “This says to me that there’s some shortage I don’t know about. When they show those photographs from space, there’s a lot of water!”
“Last Call at the Oasis” is the latest social-advocacy documentary from Participant Media, whose previous output includes “An Inconvenient Truth,” “Food, Inc.” and “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” along with many other less obvious (and less successful) films. Like most of those movies, it’s adapted from existing material in another format, in this case journalist Alex Prud’homme’s book “The Ripple Effect.” At its best, Participant has been able to marry a message-delivery system to a genuine cinematic experience, and that’s definitely what Yu — an eclectic talent whose work includes the documentary “In the Realms of the Unreal” and the narrative feature “Ping Pong Playa,” along with numerous TV episodes — delivers here. “Oasis” packs in a lot of dire information, but it wraps it in often-spectacular images and cutting-edge graphics, moving from Las Vegas to rural Michigan to the Australian outback to the nearly depleted waters of the Jordan River, where the traditional baptismal spot of Jesus has become a fetid swamp contaminated with sewage from a nearby Israeli town.
While the discussion in “Last Call at the Oasis” is never directly about partisan politics or ideology, and although Yu relies mostly on the testimony of respected scientists, this film probably faces a version of the “Inconvenient Truth” problem. It’s largely preaching to the converted, in the sense that if you fail to accept certain basic premises — that climate change is a scientific fact, for example, and that fresh water is a limited and fragile resource that is nearly maxed out on a global scale — then you’ll just blow this off as left-wing fearmongering. In one especially effective section, Yu shows us file footage of Sean Hannity and Sarah Palin ostentatiously taking the side of Latino farmers in California’s Central Valley who were denied irrigation water because of an endangered fish called the Delta smelt. Then she has a scientist explain the larger context: Yes, the smelt is an insignificant species in and of itself, but you can’t consider it on its own. In fact, it’s a key indicator species in an enormous interlocking ecosystem that extends from the rivers and estuaries of the inland West to San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. If the smelt dies, that tells us the whole system is dying.
“Last Call at the Oasis” follows a familiar pattern seen in Participant productions and other social-issue docs, but it does so with such panache and visual variety that I really never felt lectured at. About three-quarters of the film lays out an immensely complicated set of problems and argues that they’re all connected. Agriculture and overdevelopment in the West and Southwest have drained the regions’ reservoirs and aquifers nearly dry, while in many wetter heartland areas the groundwater has been poisoned with exotic industrial toxins and antibiotic-laced cattle manure. Americans’ growing use of all sorts of supplements and pharmaceuticals — many with unknown long-term effects — has created a problem for municipal sewage treatment facilities, which are set up to remove trash and organic waste, not unknown chemical compounds.
Then, of course, Yu has to make the case that it’s not too late for us to clean up this precious resource — along with sunlight, the one absolutely necessary component of life on Earth — and learn to share it better. Erin Brockovich leads a campaign on behalf of poisoned homeowners in Midland, Texas, that leads to new regulations on hexavalent chromium in drinking water. (Yu does not fail to mention that Midland is George W. Bush’s adopted hometown.) The Israeli town stops pumping poop into a Christian holy site, and a coalition of Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli activists work on a plan to share the Jordan River’s water. Many people, the marketing firm discovers, can be convinced to try Porcelain Springs. (The water we drink every day is recycled sewage, too — we just don’t know where or when it happened.)
If anything, the real downside of “Last Call at the Oasis” comes after the movie is over, when you think back over the rather thin optimism of the last 20 minutes. Sure, Los Angeles will supposedly start piping recycled tap water by the end of this decade, and that’s great and all. But that does nearly nothing to address the fact that only about 1 percent of the planet’s water is drinkable, and 80 to 90 percent of that is used to grow food, often in agricultural regions (like the Central Valley of California) that would otherwise be barren. In case you’re wondering about desalinating seawater, by the way, the answer is no. (It’s like the hydrogen-car solution to the energy crisis, an expensive boondoggle that won’t work.) So we need to figure out how to use a lot less water, very quickly, with a rapidly growing population. Or we just shrug our shoulders and agree with Famiglietti’s two-word prognosis.
More Related Stories
- I don't hate millennials anymore!
- You only hate grad school because you think you're supposed to
- Developers evict historic women's shelter to build luxury hotel
- Kaitlyn Hunt refuses plea offer, will go to court over high school relationship
- The secrets of cicada survival
- Nobody "needs" to rape
- Catholic Church in market for more exorcists
- Report: Nearly a quarter of all Americans struggle to afford food
- Louie Gohmert: Women should be forced to carry nonviable pregnancies to term
- This is what Guy Fieri looks like as a balloon
- Boy Scouts to members: Just don't be a gay adult
- Anonymous rallies behind Kaitlyn Hunt
- Mistrial in penalty phase of Arias case
- My text blew up in my face
- Boy Scouts end ban on openly gay boys
- Mississippi could begin prosecuting women for miscarriages
- Teenage girl claims she was beaten up for looking like Taylor Swift
- Billionaire hedge funder: Babies, breast-feeding "kill" focus, keep women from succeeding
- "Bookless library" set to open in Texas
- Man arrested for sending Craigslist sex party to neighbor's house
- Greek yogurt, toxic waste hazard?
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11