REVIEW: Basic Message of Water-Shortage Doc Last Call at the Oasis? We're Screwed
If you're in the mood for something new to keep you up at night worrying (and who isn't?), Jessica Yu's new documentary Last Call at the Oasis will neatly do the trick of refreshing your sense of impending doom. Aside from times of drought, water never seemed as urgent a problem as climate change, peak oil, deforestation and the other issues on our path to world destruction. But Last Call at the Oasis makes a convincing case that we're on the verge of both Waterworld and large scale Erin Brockovich-style scenarios.
The real Brockovich appears on-screen in Last Call at the Oasis, along with experts and activists like Peter Gleick, Jay Famiglietti, Robert Glennon and Tyrone Hayes, who guide the doc through its various sources of alarm. As a topic, water issues are sprawling and more than one feature can really handle — the film bounces between the imminent failure of the Hoover Dam due to the steadily dropping level in Lake Mead to the possibility of draining an area in North Nevada to continue providing water in Las Vegas. California's Central Valley is the site of a debate between farmers furious their water has been cut off and environmentalists and fisherman trying to protect the watery ecosystems being devastated by the process. Satellites show groundwater disappearing; hormones and steroids from medication aren't being processed out of what we all then drink; chemicals from factories and pesticides get into the water supply and poison people and animals.
Basically, as one scientist puts it, "We're screwed." Last Call at the Oasis has more than the usual share of gloom, though it's too steady with the facts to ever come across as alarmist — and some of its imagery is downright haunting. Hayes, a professor at UC Berkeley, was first hired to research the impact of the pesticide Atrazine on amphibian populations, and took his findings public when the company wanted him to hide his discovery that even at levels deemed safe for human consumption the chemicals caused male frogs to develop female characteristics. Then there's the green water coming out of the taps of homes in Midland, Texas, indicative of the carcinogenic hexavalent chromium. Manure pools from concentrated animal feeding operations in Michigan bleed chemicals into the ground; dead fish clot watersides. Not even bottled water is safe.
Last Call at the Oasis is a Participant Production, and its determined US-centricity seems both calculated and closed-off. The film wanders abroad only to explore situations as they relate to the States. There's the cautionary tale of Australia, where a decade of drought has shut down dairy farms, their owners weeping and sometimes, as a troubling stat notes, committing suicide. Singapore shows up because it has successfully trained its population to accept recycled water. A visit to the Middle East shows that Yardenit, the Jordan River baptism site, is downstream from heavy pollution, and that some families go for months without water. It's an irritating way to look at a global problem, especially since, as the film notes in the beginning, America has "the biggest water footprint in the world." But there's also something canny (if cynical) about it — problems elsewhere are other people's problems, and what better way to motivate a population than by showing it things that have only to do with them?
Yu is a step above the average problem-doc director — her earlier nonfiction films In the Realms of the Unreal and Protagonist showcased unusual visual ambition, touches of which show up in this more traditionally structured work. Lakes drain before our eyes, leaving a dock jutting out into the air; dreamy vintage footage shows children wriggling along underwater in a pool. The opening credits appear over shimmering, slow motion shots of splashes of liquid, and a sense of the power of imagery can also be found in the more standard footage: For example, a worker at the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in Brooklyn opens up a hatch to show the condoms bubbling up to the surface of the to-be-treated water.
Having presented so much widespread impending disaster, Last Call at the Oasis can't quite make its final argument that "the glass is still half full" — there doesn't seem to be any turning this ship around, only slowing it a little. The film offers some hope in the form of reclaimed water, the most economically and environmentally sound means of slowing our water consumption. It's sewage water that's been treated and purified to the point of being potable, though as a psychologist notes, there's a serious public reluctance to be overcome before anyone will actually want to quaff it — the film even brings in marketing teams and Jack Black to test out what kind of marketing it would take to make it work. Like many of the angles in the film, it's a question of short-term gains versus long-term survival — arguments about jobs, keeping the Las Vegas Strip in working fountains or squeamishness about where your drink came from start to seem trivial when you consider not having enough safe water to live.