"Last Call at the Oasis", directed by Jessica Yu, reviewed
Every time I write about water issues, I'm tempted to lede with a Coleridge reference—you know, the Ancient Mariner's infamous lament about water, water being "everywhere, nor any drop to drink"—and this time, as you can see, I've actually gone and done it. And that's because "Last Call at the Oasis," the new Jessica Yu documentary now in theaters, reveals a nation sliding into a situation that eerily fits the ol' mariner's description.
First off, we have entire regions that are growing increasingly water-strapped. The rapidly developing southwest especially, from much of Texas to Las Vegas to southern California, is draining its reservoirs and still coming up short. And secondly, most of the nation simply doesn't much seem to care—it's not anyone's fault really, we just see water everywhere, and, as the film points out, assume that it's a vast and entirely replenishable resource.
Which is, of course, is a dire oversimplification in a world under the strain of climate change, booming populations, and breakneck development in traditionally arid areas. "Oasis" opens by taking a look at Las Vegas, a city that has grown from a dusty saloon town into a booming metropolis—reliable nearby water supply be damned. As it continues to expand, Vegas suffers chronic water shortages, and is sucking its primary water source, Lake Mead, dry. City managers are desperately trying to secure approval of a massive pipeline project, which would pump groundwater in from a valley in faraway eastern Nevada.
The residents of that rural area—small towners, farmers, and Native Americans—are pissed. And rightfully so; the project could drastically alter the geography of their home and threaten their livelihoods. The tension of this anecdote sets the stage for the water issues explored throughout the film, which examines drought, climate change, industrial water pollution, and major water shortages throughout the nation. "Oasis" is best described as an eminently watchable primer—it's propelled by fast-paced, dramatic storytelling—on the major water issues that will increasingly confront the nation in coming years.
Time and again, it paints a portrait of a common phenomenon: human development overextending itself beyond its natural carrying capacity. We see farmers who've relied on finite underground aquifers, cities building new suburbs in waterless regions, heavy industry heedlessly dumping pollution in waterways—"Oasis" looks into examples of each, and examines the stories of those who suffer as a result.
As such, the film tackles three disparate arenas where the water crisis playing out: Development and usage, as evidenced by the Vegas story and a segment on California farmers. Then, there's climate change. For that, we travel to Australia, where severe droughts are putting farmers out of business, and leading to a spate of farmer suicides. We get a moving portrait of how warming climes are reshaping entire economies and ways of life—in this case, by throwing them into crisis.
Next, we get a series of segments on water pollution, many of which feature Erin Brockovich as she takes on corporate polluters and tries to aid small town residents in Midway, Texas, as they cope with what is likely water contamination. The film also looks at the impact of the pesticide Atrazine and studies the contamination of the Jordan river, where Jesus was baptized. "Oasis" also examines a couple solutions—increasing the efficiency of public water infrastructure, resisting the privatization of bottled water, and exploring reclaimed, or recycled water. This leads to the film's most lighthearted sequence, in which Jack Black is tapped to spearhead a marketing campaign to get the public on board with recycled drinking water—in other words, water that has been treated in a sanitation center.
If you're getting the sense that the film is a little scattershot; it is. The film never delves too deeply into any of the aforementioned arenas, nor does it construct a cogent thesis about how we might avoid the more expansive plights. But perhaps that wasn't the aim. Instead, the film offers a shimmering compendium of the myriad water woes our nation is grappling with—and to those hitherto unaware of these issues, it will be a startling, informative, and compelling wakeup call.