Interview: “Last Call at the Oasis” Director Jessica Yu Talks Big Issue Docs and Avoiding Fearmongering
With the remarkable issue doc Last Call at the Oasis opening this Friday, I’m re-posting the first part of my interview with director Jessica Yu from the Toronto Film Festival last fall. It begins here and then continues over at its original home at Spout.
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
anyevery 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…
Excellent interview with Last Call at the Oasis director Jessica Yu. If you missed our review of the documentary, you can find that here!