Despite its PG-13 rating, Academy Award-winning director Jessica Yu’s “Last Call at the Oasis” is not for the squeamish.
The thought-provoking documentary, an unflinching portrait of life’s most basic necessity, water, rolls out unnerving statistics: Less than 1 percent of the world’s water is actually available to drink; by 2025, more than half of the world will not have adequate access to water; America has the largest water footprint in the world.
“Growing up in Northern California, I always felt pretty aware of water issues,” says Yu, who lived in Los Altos Hills before moving to Southern California, near the desert. “But there are so many issues now. They’re complex and time is running out. After doing this film, watching people water their sidewalks is hard to stomach.”
Produced by the company behind “An Inconvenient Truth,” the film describes crisis situations across the globe, including Las Vegas, Los Angeles, California’s Central Valley, Michigan, Texas, Australia and the Middle East.
Yu, who won an Oscar for her 1996 documentary short, “Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien,” combines facts with psychological insight and profiles of activists and advocates, including the prominently featured Erin Brockovich.
One startling portrait concerns Lynn Henning, a farmer in Clayton, Mich., who won the Goldman Environmental Prize for her work exposing livestock factory farms that use concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.
Henning has lost one-third of her lung capacity since she began researching CAFOs, some of which produce as much excrement as a city of 69,000 people on a daily basis.
An aerial view shows Michigan’s green fields covered with massive swathes of shiny brown muck — CAFO-produced sewage — which is sprayed with chemical disinfectants, creating slush across the countryside. These waste-filled fields — contaminated by E. coli, pesticides, hormones and carcass debris — ferment, producing methane, ammonia and hydrogen sulfide — all respiratory toxins.
The pollution doesn’t end there. The fetid muck is used as “fertilizer,” trickling into groundwater supplies, streams and rivers.
But “Last Call at the Oasis” isn’t all doom and gloom. It highlights efforts by nongovernmental organization Friends of the Earth Middle East, which is working with Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian officials to clean the polluted Jordan River.
“Compromise is happening in a place where you would think it would be impossible to have cooperation,” Yu says. “We can’t all become activists overnight, and no one thing is going to change the situation, but there is tremendous room for improvement.”
With Erin Brockovich, Peter Gleick, Alex Prud’homme, Jay Famiglietti, Robert Glennon
Written and directed by Jessica Yu
Running time 1 hour 39 minutes