Getting the support of a major activist documentary producer would seem like a golden ticket for a filmmaker. But when the film is as complex as the world's looming water crisis, there's still a lot of difficult work ahead for the director.
Jessica Yu's new documentary, Last Call at the Oasis (2011), made with the backing ofParticipant Media ( An Inconvenient Truth, Food Inc.), is an urgent wake-up call about the planet's shortage of potable water.
But the subject posed several challenges. "Water is very tangible, but the problems are very abstract, like issues of quantity. Water is below the ground or out in the atmosphere," says Yu, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker who won an Academy Award for her 1996 documentary short Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien. "So we knew we wanted to tell the film through stories."
With Last Call at the Oasis, "we were making a film where there is no real bad guy." Producer Elise Pearlstein previously worked with Participant Media's Food Inc., which was about corporate farming and featured clearly blameworthy people, Yu says. "But with water, I guess ignorance is the bad guy. We really are facing an alarming and growing crisis in terms of water, but we don't even think about it."
Participant, founded in 2004 by Canadian-born Internet billionaire Jeff Skoll, thinks bigger than the average made-for-television documentaries and provides relatively bigger budgets as well. "These are films that are intended to be cinematic – intended to be for the theatre. And we were very conscious of that from Day 1," Pearlstein says.
Because the film was meant for the big screen, Yu had much more scope to photograph water artistically and play on the paradox of that beauty juxtaposed with how dangerously scarce clean water is becoming.
"Immediately you're thinking of waterfalls, streams and lakes. When you think of water, you think of the beauty of water. And right there, that's an interesting disconnect. We have an idyllic vision of water, but we know that we have these problems," Yu says. "We would joke that we were doing water porn. We'd go, 'Oh my God, look at that fountain! Shoot it in slow motion!' "
A film backed by Participant stands to get a certain amount of notice before it's even released, which was the case with the attention Last Call at the Oasis received at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall. This raises expectations that a Participant documentary will be one of the year's main releases within the doc market.
"Their films are supposed to make a change and also be entertaining at the same time," Pearlstein says. "And every film is accompanied by what's called a social action campaign. So the film is the beginning of the dialogue."
Last Call – opening Friday at Toronto's Bloor Hot Docs Cinema – may not make as big a splash as 2006's groundbreaking An Inconvenient Truth about former U.S. vice-president Al Gore's environmental campaign, but it will be judged on Participant's track record and activism slant. Last Call's website, for instance, includes ways to personally take action and fight for government policy changes.
"I think there is a certain aura about Participant, but once you're in it, you realize it's not like working for a factory. They actually give the filmmakers quite a long leash and a lot of support," Yu says.
In other words, the ultimate success of a film is very much up to the director. Participant's executive vice-president of documentary films, Diane Weyermann, is known for giving filmmakers a certain leeway, even if industry watchers and moviegoers already have a preconceived notion of what Last Call will be like.
"This is the first time I've worked with Participant. But one reason why I think they've been successful is that they really trust the filmmakers and they trust filmmaking," Yu says. "So while they might be interested in the subject matter, they aren't looking over your shoulder saying this is how you should do it."