Jessica Yu's Focus Forward film tackles a subject that most people are uncomfortable talking about. In a word: shit. Or rather, shit and how to dispose of it safely and cleanly. In making Last Call at the Oasis, her most recent feature-length doc about the crisis facing the world's supply of clean water, Jessica Yu encountered Jack Sim aka Mr. Toilet, who has gone from a businessman to a philanthropist and crusader, working to provide clean sanitation to the developing world.
How did Yu discover Mr. Toilet?
"[With] Last Call at the Oasis, we were interested in looking at sewage and how we treat sewage and how we clean our water. Very early on we stumbled across Mr. Toilet because we were looking at the World Toilet Summit in Singapore," a leader in terms of water and sewage technology, "It was because I wanted to go to the World Toilet Summit," says Yu. "Finding out that Mr. Toilet was the head of the whole thing was kind of a bonus.
"As soon we met him we all just fell in love with him because he's very compassionate and smart and funny and humble. Its a really interesting combination. I think that when you look at something as maligned as sewage and sewage technology, you need someone who's going to be an ambassador who will be so disarming that people will be willing to talk about shit."
Where did Sim Come From?
We were curious about Sim's background and it turns out that "he was a business man for most of his life," says Yu, "and when he turned 40 he owned 14 companies." Apparently he then had a crisis of faith, as it were. "He asked himself 'Why am I doing this? What's the purpose? what's driving me?' so he had a real epiphany," says Yu. He realized that he wanted to do something with his life that helped others, so he started looking for a cause that needed some help.
"It's interesting, because he started at a suicide prevention hotline and his frustration there was that you can only help one person at a time," says Yu. He then founded the Restroom Association of Singapore (RAS) in order to help set standards for restroom sanitation. The RAS turned into the World Toilet Organization or as Sim calls it, according to Yu, "the other WTO." There he realized that it was a cause that is largely neglected yet affects people worldwide. "It's amazing when you look at the statistics, says Yu. "2.6 billion worldwide don't have access to sanitation."
That's right...2.6 BILLION. That's 40% of the world that is without access to a toilet. As a result, the health of the developing world is suffering. According to Sim, 90% of the surface water in India is contaminated with feces. That's a staggering number.
"Because I had done a film with Cinelan before, I knew what the [original concept] was," says Yu, "but then when it turned out that for Focus Forward there were these themes of innovation and changing the world, it was a no brainer. We had this great story that we were heartbroken that we couldn't work into [Last Call]. In a way, the story of Jack Sim as Mr. Toilet is it's own stand alone story, so [hearing about Focus Forward] was kind of serendipity."
It's a story that's both inspiring and chilling at the same time. The images of children playing and defecating into the same water source and babies covered with flies would inspire anyone and we should all be thankful that Sim was moved to act!
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