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San Francisco International Film Fest 2012: 'It's the Earth...' and 'Last Call at the Oasis'

Last Call at the Oasis

Last Call at the Oasis and It's the Earth Not the Moon both ponder water, from all kinds of angles.

It's the Earth Not the Moon (É na Terra Não É na Lua)

Director: Gonçalo Tocha
Cast: Gonçalo Tocha, Didio Pestana
Rated: NR
Studio: Barca 13
Year: 2011
US date: 2012-04-29 (San Francisco International Film Festival)

Last Call at the Oasis

Director: Jessica Yu
Cast: Erin Brockovich-Ellis, Peter Gleick, Jay Familgietti, Robert Glennon, Tyrone Hayes, Paul Rozin, Jack Black
Rated: NR
Studio: IDP/Samuel Goldwyn Films/ATO Pictures
Year: 2011
US date: 2012-05-01 (San Francisco International Film Festival)
We have to shake ourselves out of this false sense of security.

-- Erin Brockovich

It's the Earth Not the Moon (É na Terra Não É na Lua) begins on water. As Portuguese director Gonçalo Tocha and his sound man Didio Pestana approach the island of Corvo by boat, they describe their plan: "We want to film everything," Tocha says as you look out on water and the island, still and rocky and green in the distance, "To film everything, we will try to be everywhere at the same time and not miss a thing, we will try to meet everyone, to film every face." On an island where the population hovers around 450, this might seem possible at first, but of course, the film's focus narrows, even as it seems to expand.

As the filmmakers approach, they note the island is home to one restaurant and one airport, one school and one health center, not to mention one crater of the Corvo Volcano. As exotic as it may appear, Corvo, they insist, "is on earth, not the moon." To make its difference and sameness visible, they take their cameras to mountaintops and shorelines, to busy docks and into people's homes. Everywhere, they find weathered faces and little girls in pink dresses, dogs on stoops and men herding cows on bikes.

The smallest single municipality in Azores, Corvo embodies contradictions, as does any single-seeming place. The team's efforts to "film everything" produce a series of memorable portraits -- of pigs and cows and 94-year-old Uncle Pedro, who regales the film crew with an accordion recital. They also spend a good deal of the film's 185-minute running time looking at waves and coastlines and trees. Corvo is gorgeous and rough and home to all kinds of traditions. The team films church services, pigs being slaughtered, and cows being milked -- activities both familiar and strange.

They also film people, fishermen, churchgoers, a proud (and talkative) Communist Party member ("My party doesn't promise a thing," she declares, the wall behind her adorned with a framed image of Mary and a poster of smiling local politician), as well as a woman who's spent her life knitting fishermen's caps. The film returns to the knitter periodically, as she describes what she's doing while sitting under portraits of Jesus and Mary. She speaks mostly without looking at the camera, focused on her work, and she has so much to say. She promises the filmmaker that when the hat she is making for him is done, he'll be pleased. The camera cuts from her to her lace curtains, blowing gently on a window that looks out on the ocean as she notes what he'll know: "It was an old woman of 75 years that made it for me in Corvo. It will stay in your memory."

The film takes up memory as a lifelong effort, to mold and impress, to lose and suppress. Most of the "island's memories," Tocha learns, are preserved in rituals handed down and assorted collections of photographs, which reveal the similarities between coastlines and mountains, then and now. Along with the knitter, whose work is memory in the making, Tocha visits with an old man working on wood. He preserves an ancient craft, beautifully, boats made of small, smoothed interlocking blocks. He remembers that men from Corvo used to go whaling -- the same men for whom the woman would knit dark blue caps (their favorite color). They would go out and come back, with tales and catches. Such stories are mostly lost now, as the island has not maintained written records. Some denizens mourn the past's receding, others focus on what's ahead. One man looks through his papers, dates and purchases and details whose contexts are long past. "I've hoarded so much, I've written so much, you see," he says, the camera looking over his table full of papers. "I have no order anymore. When one loses the necessary things and health doesn’t help." He's since burned his own journal, he says, the one he kept all his life. It's time to look elsewhere, not back.

The filmmakers' own efforts to record -- to keep some of the present -- strike some of their subjects as amusing (a woman carrying her Lady of Graces figurine in a box tells a friend, "They're following me like a bunch of fools") and a group of older men comment on the filmmakers' persistence: sitting in a town square, shot from a distance, they speak as if to themselves, observing, "Corvo has never been as filmed before as it is now by these folks." Another nods, "They're making a movie, they have to, they're doing their job."

This idea of work suffuses life on Corvo, past and present, and also sets up for the future, whose shape no one can guess. Still, as Corvo today resembles Corvo then -- indicated in a series of side-by-side photos, unwritten but stunningly visual evocations of the past, in black and white -- suggests that the place doesn't change very much.

It's the Earth Not the Moon

A sort of opposite case is made by another documentary that begins with water - streams and rivers and waves. Last Call at the Oasis -- which screens 30 April at the San Francisco International Film Festival and opens in select theaters on 4 May -- lays out the lies we tell ourselves when it comes to water. This process begins in Las Vegas. "The amazing thing about Vegas," essays Robert Glennon, author of Unquenchable, "is that it refuses to let the lack of water constrain its growth." Indeed, the camera pans over the city's fabled artifice, the casinos, hotels, homes, gas stations, not to mention the bright lights at night and traffic for miles, to illustrate that resistance to "constraints." Glennon says, "It's easy to point the finger at Vegas, but when you look at the future of water, we're all Vegas."

But all this gorgeous expansion, all this fantasy, is a problem, according to Last Call at the Oasis, and affects the past and present and especially, the future. If we once imagined water was forever, that it would never run out, current projections reveal the resource is limited. Inspired by Alex Prud’homme’s The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Fresh Water in the 21st Century, Jessica Yu's documentary offers a series of speakers and situations -- Vegas' dependance on a depleting Lake Mead, the lack of water in California's Central Valley, Australia's recent decade of droughts, and contaminated water in Midland, Texas. One concern is the shrinking supply: Tim Barnett puts it, "You don’t have to be a scientist to know if you take more water out of the bathtub, the tub will eventually go empty." And UC Irvine's Jay Famiglietti -- who calls this diminishment "a crisis of epidemic proportions" -- submits photos taken by a satellite called Grace, showing the depletion of ground water in Central Valley, leading to "the first instance of people in the US turning on the tap and not getting any water."

As as the film draws attention to the crisis -- one of "epic proportions," notes -- produced by the shrinking water supply, it also indicts humans' extraordinary -- and apparently willfully self-deceiving -- efforts to accelerate the process. It's true, observes Tyrone Hayes, a biologist at UC Berkeley, "All species go extinct, but that doesn't mean we need to speed along." Having cultivated an interest in "amphibian development" since childhood, he was first alarmed when asked to look into the effects of the weed killer Atrazine: when he found it was turning male frogs into female frogs, he presumed his next step was to reveal that rather disturbing bit of information, to follow the model of scientists on, say, C.S.I. (here the film inserts a clip of Warrick [Gary Dourdan], serious as ever as he intones, "We follow the evidence, even if we don’t like where it takes us"). But no. instead Hayes was instructed to keep the news to himself, at which point he launched a campaign to tell everyone he could about the dire threat posed by the poison. "Einstein said, 'Those who have the privilege to know have the responsibility to act,'" Hayes says, taking his case to a series of audiences, insisting that the federal government stop the use of atrazine, still producing profits for its maker, Syngenta, which markets it as "Safe, Affordable, Trusted."

The effects of various poisons shape the collision of past and the present in Last Call at the Oasis, in which Erin Brockovich points out the costs of individuals, communities, and especially, companies ignoring habits and rejecting changes. She and environrmental consultant Bob Bowcock gather information from local activists who email her (based in part on her lingering fame from the Julia Roberts movie, which the documentary recalls in clips that remain alarmingly relevant). Sissy Sathre contacts them from Midland, where water is contaminated by hexavalent chromium (the same chemical Brockovich battled in the movie), reporting incidents of cancer and lupus. "All we want is good potable water," says Sathre, "To turn on the faucet and we know it's okay to brush our teeth with it."

This won't be happening in the near future. Brockovich tells a group of concerned Midlanders the federal government can't (or won't) help them ("The EPA is broke"), then expresses her ache for the future they can't stop. She listens to individuals coughing and worrying. "They're walking dead," she sighs. "And at that point, for me, it's really hard for me to be the cheerleader." But she tries to sound alarms, anyway, for people who have no other recourse. She goes to Washington, she testifies. During one hearing, Senator Barbara Boxer says, "It's unbelievable to me that they would call you rather than call the EPA or the NIH." At this point in the film -- which assembles so many examples of the government failing to take action or even seeming interest in water contaminants, Boxer's lament sounds ridiculous, a sign of even more willful ignorance.

But as Brockovich and other experts tell it in Last Call at the Oasis, this is no surprise at all. Government agencies and commercial interests collude to keep toxins on the market, whether their collusion is intentional or accidental, a function of greed or just stunning shortsightedness. Brockovich says that her father, who worked in the water industry, "promised me, in my lifetime we would see water become more valuable than oil. I think that time is here." As people argue over causes -- global warming or climate cycles -- the problem becomes increasingly acute, around the world. If Americans are especially able to shut their eyes to it, given the access to clean water and the insidious marketing by the bottled water manufacturers, that doesn't mean the future isn't fast approaching. Last Call at the Oasis makes that clear, urgently.


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