Last Call at the Oasis: Toronto Review

Doc about more-urgent-than-you-think water issues wisely focuses on their relevance to the U.S.

The documentary focuses on water issues and their relevance to the U.S.

A well-made argument that Americans should be much more concerned about water issues than we are, Jessica Yu's Last Call at the Oasis sits in that rank of Big Issue docs that are both convincing and attractive enough to catch on in theaters, given the right distributor and more than a little luck.

Eager to convince auds that water isn't just a Third World worry, the film (unlike the earlier Flow) focuses mostly on American stories, taking us first to Las Vegas. Yu shows us the Bellagio's fountains, the profligacies of faux-Venetian canals -- and then reveals that the Vegas area's water needs are so vast that the Strip's extravagance accounts for only 3 percent of overall use.

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The sheer number of people drawn by development, we learn, creates a nightmare not only for Vegas planners but for upstate farmers, whose resources are threatened by a new pipeline, and by those who depend on the Hoover Dam, where water levels could soon drop so low no electricity would be produced.

Later segments explore threats to fishing, agriculture, and the safety of drinking water. Interviewees range from those who have suffered -- like farmers in Australia, where one drought got so severe there was a farmer suicide every four days -- to scientists who analyze trends and activists working for change.

The best known in the latter group is Erin Brockovich, who offers the film's sharpest criticism of the EPA. But unknowns carry their weight in the film as well, like the late-middle-aged farm woman whose mission to document the manure lagoons of a mass cattle-feeding operation earned her the nickname "pooperazzi," attracted threats on her safety, and led to an in-person commendation from President Obama.

Storytelling in each of the doc's chapters is tight, and on-screen graphics are stylish without drawing undue attention to themselves. Following the template of documentaries bent on scaring viewers silly, Oasis winds up with a segment pointing to glimmers of hope, one of which addresses the marketing challenge of convincing citizens that recycled waste water is safe for drinking. Coming soon, perhaps, to a grocery near you: Bottled "Porcelain Springs" water, with TV ads in which Jack Black tastes the stuff and says it's perfectly pure.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Production Company: Participant Media
Director-screenwriter: Jessica Yu
Producers: Elise Pearlstein, Jessica Yu
Executive producers: Jeff Skoll, Diane Weyermann, Carol Baum, David Helpern
Director of photography: Jon Else
Music: Jeff Beal
Editor: Kim Roberts
Sales: Submarine
PG-13, 105 minutes