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TIFF11: "Last Call at the Oasis" Director Jessica Yu Talks Big Issue Docs and Avoiding Fearmongering

By Christopher Campbell | Spout September 12, 2011 at 2:39AM

As I noted in my review of "Last Call at the Oasis," I'm not always for the big issue docs that try to save the world. So I was pleasantly surprised to really enjoy and appreciate how Jessica Yu worked with a grand-scale cause such as water. As in water shortage, water contamination and really any every other water-related problem affecting some part of the world today. I just had to talk to the Oscar-winning filmmaker, known previously for nontraditional docs like "In the Realms of the Unreal" and "Protagonist" and the fictional sports comedy "Ping Pong Playa," to find out her secret recipe for making a great issue doc that isn't heavy on scare tactics or boring fact sheets. The first part of this conversation is below. You can find the second part, about documentary immediacy, at the Documentary Channel Blog.
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As I noted in my review of "Last Call at the Oasis," I'm not always for the big issue docs that try to save the world. So I was pleasantly surprised to really enjoy and appreciate how Jessica Yu worked with a grand-scale cause such as water. As in water shortage, water contamination and really any every other water-related problem affecting some part of the world today. I just had to talk to the Oscar-winning filmmaker, known previously for nontraditional docs like "In the Realms of the Unreal" and "Protagonist" and the fictional sports comedy "Ping Pong Playa," to find out her secret recipe for making a great issue doc that isn't heavy on scare tactics or boring fact sheets. The first part of this conversation is below. You can find the second part, about documentary immediacy, at the Documentary Channel Blog.


You’re not really known for issue films. How did you get involved with this?

Jessica Yu: Water is one of the five urgent threats that Participant is targeting, and I knew Diane Weyermann from Sundance and at Participant and I really respect her. So when she came to me about it, I think my initial reaction was that it’s so awesome to make a film about water because it’s so visual. We think of beautiful water, when we think of it, like waterfalls and streams.

The second thing I knew is that I felt like I was fairly aware of water issues, but I thought if we’re making a film about water, whatever I find is going to be much, much worse than what I think I know. The problems that are out there are much more intense and immediate than I had anticipated. That was interesting to me, the way we have a mental image of water and we have the way we think about water and then we have what’s actually happening.

Your past nonfiction films show you have a great interest in arts and storytelling, so you bring something great to the issue doc genre, where others might be concerned only with facts, facts, facts.

All documentaries -- all films -- should be storytelling. But here there’s a challenge because there’s a certain amount of information people need to have to put the big picture together. I like the challenge of trying to figure out how you make all these things not abstractions. You have to tell people stories so it sticks, because they care about the situation.

The other thing we were looking for is stories that were not the most obvious. We started with Vegas because if you ask someone what city should be worried about water, everyone knows. And then from there it’s like, well it’s not just Vegas…


The film also handles the concept of fearmongering better than most issue docs, where you really pile on all the scare tactics but then you circle around later with humor and hope. Was this structure planned to keep from being too doom-and-gloom alarmist?

A lot of times films start lighter and funny and then get really serious. It’s the opposite with this, and it’s not necessarily something we planned. I think what I wanted to avoid is laying out a problem that is so all-encompassing and so intricate and so dire and then saying, “Hey, we can fix this if you just do these three things.” Or, to make it feel like there’s just nothing we can do.

The point I wanted to get to is when James Famiglietti says, “it’s not a solvable problem, but it’s a manageable one.” That’s something we can grasp. Can we slow things down rather than put the pressure on and tell everyone we can fix this if they stop doing everything they’re doing? I want people to have comfort in knowing rather than being freaked out about having knowledge. A little freak out is good, but I don’t want people to feel sorry they learn this stuff. There is value and strength in knowing what’s going on.


It’s funny, though, when you think about the parts with people being afraid of recycled water and how much detail can bring about disgust.

We were also interested in the psychological side of things. A lot of the issues that we bring up in the film, we’ve known about these things. Maybe not on this scale. We know about drought. We know about climate change. We know about unsustainable usage and contamination, but for some reason we just don’t seem to act on those things immediately.

We all think that we act so logically, but actually most of the decisions we make are emotional in some way. That was the thing about recycled water. Even if we tell people it’s clean and explain the process, they just can’t get their minds around it and think about it a different way. But that was a fun experiment.

Again, the point is not to make people paranoid but to make people not take these things for granted. If everyone changes their behavior in some small way, the cumulative effect could really make a difference. Because most of us are not doing much. The mistake is to forget everyone is living their lives and aren’t as obsessed in the same way. You have to find a way to make people understand you’re not trying to make them join your cult.


So do you think you’ll do more issue documentaries?

We have a project in the works that we’re really excited about, but we can’t talk about it yet. It will be a departure from this one. The exciting thing about these big issue documentaries is I don’t think there’s a template anymore. Audiences need to be engaged in different ways constantly.

You need things to be cinematic, you need character, you need story, you need conflict. But there’s a lot of knowledge out there and the way you connect it and convey it, there’s a lot of opportunity out there. Every project takes on its own personality so I’m sure it will tell me what to do rather than the reverse. What I’m saying is it might be a little weird.


Read the rest of this interview combined with my interview with Erin Brockovich over at the Documentary Channel Blog.


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