Famiglietti in Documentary

Not many researchers are willing to open their lives and jobs to the media, reporters and a documentary team, but James Famiglietti, a professor of earth system science and civil & environmental engineering at UC Irvine, knew that this cause was too important to keep his research floating around in environmental science journals.

“Culturally, we have to make a shift,” Famiglietti said.

Famiglietti is the leader of the University of California Center for Hydrologic Modeling. His research claim to fame is the global and regional data on climate change that has been composed by the NASA satellite mission, GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment).

“Last Call at the Oasis” is a documentary based on the book “Ripple Effect,” by Alex Prud’Homme. The documentary addresses the water and climate issues we face, featuring Famiglietti.

“That accelerated cycle is now becoming visible from outer space,” Famiglietti said in the film, unable to sugarcoat the issue. The film began screening for limited release on Friday, May 11 at the University Town Center.

The advantage of the film is the variety of featured researchers in each field of sustainability, such as Famiglietti, Peter Gleick, Alex Prud’homme, Robert Glennon and environmental activist Erin Brockovich.

“Participant plays the game at the highest level,” Famiglietti said.

The opening weekend was a documentary success: “Last Call at the Oasis” was the top film of the week at Edwards UTC. Over 1,000 students attended the film. The film has already won acclaim by publications from the OC Weekly to the New York Times. The movie will run in Irvine through Thursday, May 24. Then it could show in Long Beach, with enough promotion by Art Takes Over Pictures, the distribution company owned by the Dave Matthews Band.

One local award the film received was “Outstanding Achievement in Filmmaking” at the Newport Beach Film Festival.

Participant Media, the production company that brought you  “An Inconvenient Truth,” “Food, Inc.” and “Waiting for Superman,” is expecting that “Last Call at the Oasis,” produced by Elise Pearlstein and directed by Jessica Yu, will compete for an Oscar nomination for best documentary.

“The challenge is getting people to go see it,” Famiglietti said.

With most environmental films, those who attend screenings are already on-board with sustainability, and the film is essentially, preaching to the choir.

Famiglietti is concerned with “how to get beyond the choir?”

Why not lead by example? Kevin Schlunegger, The Green Initiative Fund accountant, caught his sustainability icon red-handed at the grocery store. Famiglietti, wearing a TGIF shirt, was lifting bottled water into the shopping cart for his son and friends in Boy Scouts. “I fell off this pedestal and I could feel myself failing and crashing to the ground,” Famiglietti said with a grin.

Famiglietti happily tells this story to his students because it lets them know that he is not preaching. “I’m just like everyone else. It’s hard for us to change our habits. We do what we can, and we are trying to wean our kids off,” he admitted.

Famiglietti was awarded with a yearlong Geological Society of America Birdsall-Dreiss Lectureship for which he is traveling to many countries to give 50 lectures.

“I was really honored and happy to do it,” he said.

On top of teaching and researching for the university and making a movie, Famiglietti also writes a blog for the Environmental News section of the National Geographic.

Famiglietti’s wife, Catherine, is akin to her husband in the lecture department. Catherine Famiglietti teaches for the math department at UCI, keeping “university” in the family.

With the little free time the two get, lunch dates in-between lectures is a treat.

The Famiglietti family does their best to reduce their carbon footprint and just as importantly, reduce water usage.

However, the parents are feeling more motivated than their kids to think that sustainability is cool.

Still, Famiglietti’s son, a senior graduating from University High School this summer, wants to study engineering at Tufts University, where his father earned his bachelor’s degree in geology.

Famiglietti’s daughter, a junior at the high school is looking at Division Three schools, as she is immersed in soccer.

“I teach this stuff, so I overwhelm myself all the time … it’s best to think about small, tractable things,” he suggests.

The country grew as a natural resource-rich, vast, unlimited source. As the population has grown significantly, we finally recognize that we are having a negative impact on the environment. Oil and groundwater are starting to disappear.

“It’s kind of a mess,” he admitted.

Famiglietti said that “the water and energy efficiency are intimately linked.” While much of the energy budget is spent on the transportation, heating and treating of water, the water budget is used to generate energy.

When it comes to retrofitting the facilities on campus, we are very green-conscious.

“If you look into what we are doing, we are really doing very well,” Famiglietti said, referring to Wendell Brase, Vice Chancellor for Administrative and Business Services.

While going through the almost two-year process of making the film, Famiglietti learned that these producers research heavily on all the different aspects of each topic they present.

“It’s like getting a Ph.D. every time they do a new movie,” Familiglietti said. “For me it was a great opportunity and put it through their filter of production communicate with the community.”

“We can definitely do a better job, we just have to start doing.”