The spring commencement speaker for the UA's College of Science studied English at Yale and makes her living as a film director.
Science, though, plays a major role in Jessica Yu's most recent documentary, "Last Call at the Oasis," which explores problems with the worldwide supply and quality of water.
Yu won an academy award in 1997 for her documentary short feature "Breathing Lessons."
Some of the scenery, the characters and the inconvenient facts of "Last Call" should be familiar to Southern Arizonans whose water lifeline is a 336-mile uphill canal that siphons the Colorado River.
The film looks at that Colorado River system, contrasting the "bathtub-ring" marks on the shoreline of Lake Mead with the profligate fountains of the Las Vegas Strip and the sprawling subdivisions of the Vegas suburbs.
One of the water experts interviewed is Robert Glennon, a University of Arizona Regents' professor of law who has written two books - "Water Follies" and "Unquenchable" - on the subject.
Glennon, who recently attended the film's premiere, calls it "amazing, the best film ever done on water."
The movie explores the threats from polluting chemicals and pharmaceutical drugs in addition to supply problems throughout the world.
It is produced by Participant Media, which also made "An Inconvenient Truth," "Food, Inc." and "Waiting for Superman."
Glennon praised the "breadth, aspiration and ambition of it and, ultimately, the hopefulness."
The movie eventually arrives at the Middle East, where a group of Palestinians, Israelis and Jordanians are working together to share the water of the Jordan River. It suggests that water problems, rather than driving us apart, could bring us together.
"It's not some simplistic, Pollyanna-ish, 'It's going to be all right' message, but 'If we can tackle this, we can get it done,' " said Glennon.
"The last place on Earth we thought we would see cooperation was in the Middle East," said Yu.
Yu said she was most surprised, in researching the movie, by the imminence of the supply problem.
California's Central Valley, she said, produces 25 percent of the nation's produce with a water supply that could run out in 60 years.
She hopes the film will get people talking about water before the problems become intractable.
"It's not a question that we will adapt when we need to, but can we do better before we're forced to do it? What I'm hoping is that knowledge is more empowering than it is overwhelming. When there is too much bad news, people throw up their hands and say, 'There is nothing we can do.' "
With water, she said, individual actions matter and they multiply.
Yu praised the scientists in the movie for "their willingness to step up and talk about these things," rather than simply publishing scientific results and calling it a day.
That message makes Yu an appropriate commencement speaker for a group of young scientists, said Elliott Cheu, associate dean of science at the UA.
"We have an important role to play in society. We can't just be passive creators of science," Cheu said. "The resources we have, we know, are limited."
Cheu had an inside track in snagging Yu as a commencement speaker. She is his cousin.
Cheu said he originally invited her to the winter commencement, but she was busy finishing the film.
Waiting for spring made it possible to bring her to Tucson for commencement and to a screening of the newly released film at The Loft Cinema. It is part of the "Science on Screen" series, which explores scientific connections to cinema fare in partnership with the College of Science and the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.
IF YOU GO
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: The Loft Cinema, 3233 E. Speedway
What: Screening of "Last Call at the Oasis" and a post-film chat with director Jessica Yu and law professor-author Robert Glennon
Cost: Normal admission prices apply ($9 adults; $6 children and seniors; $7 student, military and teacher; $5 members)
Contact reporter Tom Beal at email@example.com or 573-4158