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Filmmaker Jessica Yu Turns the Lens on Water Shortage

By Anthony Kaufman Speakeasy/WSJ.com The new film “Last Call at the Oasis” — which premieres on Friday at the Toronto International Film Festival — aims to make drinking water the hottest environmental topic since global warming. From the producers of “An Inconvenient Truth,” “Food, Inc.” and “Waiting for Superman,” the documentary draws upon the research of scientists and includes diverse voices, from Erin Brockovich to actor Jack Black, to raise alarm bells about the state of the earth’s water supply. Directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Jessica Yu (“In the Realms of the Unreal,” “Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien”), the film claims there is the possibility that, in the near future, there won’t be enough water to sustain life on the planet, according to a synopsis on the website of Jeff Skoll’s Participant Media, which backed the project. Hype or reality? Yu, who now considers herself a “water nerd,” talked with Speakeasy about the film and the issues it raises. What was the biggest moment of discovery for you in making this film? The biggest thing for me was the time frame.  When we think of a lot of environmental problems, even with “The Inconvenient Truth,” there is the sense that these things are far away. But if you take, for example, what’s happening with Lake Mead, it’s a very visible indicator of water shortage problems and usage issues in the entire Southwest. You usually think of it as a crisis that’s several generations down the road, but you’re not talking 20 years; you’ll see the first alarm bells and restrictions in four-five years. The other theme of the film is that we do live so insulated from these water threats that are staring at us in the face. Particularly, in the U.S., it’s not something that we’re concerned about. But it’s a complicated issue, so it’s not an easy message that can be conveyed in a sound bite. Because the film is from the backers of “An Inconvenient Truth” and “Food, Inc.” are you prepared for a backlash against the film from those who believe this is leftist propaganda? There are some things that you can take a partisan approach to, but water is so tangible. You can see when the water levels go down, or the water is polluted or, in extreme cases, livestock is dying. So here is something more inarguable than what some people feel about climate change. Do you have any indisputable examples? If you asked a bunch of water lawyers, everything is disputable. But the film deals with shortage issues and contamination issues. And those two are really interconnected. So when we went into the contamination issues, we have something like 80,000 chemicals that we use in this country, and under the Clean Water Act, there’s only 90 that are regulated, and under the Toxic Substances Act, there are only five chemicals. And we don’t know the impact these chemicals have in getting into our groundwater. Whether you think it’s anti-industry or not, I think our country is stepping out blindly in terms of progress and I think that needs to be looked at. Are there any companies you specifically call out for egregious contamination? We tried not to pick a fight. We tended to focus on individuals whose water problems were connected to companies here and there. The problem was getting the companies to engage with us and be part of the filming. There’s the big oil services company Schlumberger, which is expected – though it’s not proven yet – to be the source of ground water contamination in Midland, Texas, where levels of Hexavalent Chromium are high. So that’s one of the cases where we wanted to include the other side. But we were trying to make the greater point: To see what needs to be done, and regulate some of these chemicals. That was the bigger story. It’s not just: Here are the bad guys. Regulation is such a crucial topic in Washington D.C. right now. Do you address that in the film? There is a discussion of the embattled EPA, and we allude to the fact that the EPA doesn’t have the money to enforce the regulations that do exist. This discussion of getting rid of the EPA, and the idea that you would have no regulations on these matters, seems unfathomable to me, especially when clean up can be more expensive and more damaging to public health. “An Inconvenient Truth” got some flack for being Pollyanna-ish about its solutions to the global energy crisis, with listing things you can do, like screwing in some energy-efficient light bulbs to save the planet. How do you handle the solutions? We recognized early on that water being so complicated it seemed a little simplistic to say that here’s three or four things people can do. We were trying to make a bigger point that there are things that can be done on the macro level. It’s much better for people to use the film as a launching point. And the second thing I was interested in was the psychological side: Why are we so insulated from these problems that deal not only with our quality of life, but our long-term survival? What is this denial about, what are we protecting ourselves from, and how do people perceive negative change, and how do you change people’s way of thinking? http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2011/09/08/filmmaker-jessica-yu-turns-the-lens-on-water-shortage/?mod=google_news_blog