“Turning poop culture into pop culture is the fastest way to solve the sanitation crisis” (Jack Sim)
Yes, there is scatological humor in Lily Zepeda’s documentary Mr. Toilet: The World’s #2 Man. How can there not be given the subject: a worldwide sanitation crisis. It tells us that 2.5 billion people (about 40 percent of the world’s population) do not have access to that most basic of requirements of sanitation, toilets.
Central to the film is a Singaporean business man, who after making his fortune turned his attention to crap. Jack Sim grew up in a Singapore slum with no sanitation. Kids who swam in the river either developed an immunity or got sick and died. When his family moved into an apartment (nine people in six hundred square feet) that had a toilet, he believed they were now wealthy. He has set out to bring this basic sanitation to as many people as possible. But it is a daunting task.
Sim has created the World Toilet Organization. He has also become the often comic face of the sanitation crisis. He is perfectly willing to humiliate himself to bring attention to the issue. For example, since 007 flipped over spells LOO, he has posed as a James Bond-ish character, among other pop culture figures. Much of the film is filled with his humorous presentations about poo.
Sim takes us to China to see a rural school with horrendous bathroom facilities. He talks to the students who would not ask their parents to provide real toilets—even though all their parents can afford cell phones. Phones are considered a necessity, but apparently not toilets.
We also go to India where Sim is working with the government in Andhra Pradesh state to provide 6 million needed toilets (but where will the money come from?) In India many women fear rape when defecating in the open.
We also follow him as he works through the Singapore government to have the UN declare November 19 to be World Toilet Day. (It’s coming up soon. How will you celebrate?) That may seem frivolous until you remember the number noted above.
While the film is essentially a consciousness raising documentary, because Sim is so central to the story, it also shows us some of the strain such work puts on him, his family, and his organization. In time, he must begin to take a different approach and be happy with small victories rather than grand displays.
Let’s face it, it is a bit unseemly to talk about toilets and shit. (If you can’t handle such language, this film isn’t for you.) We take basic sanitation for granted. Director Lily Zepeda recounts the genesis of the film being when she was on an L.A. freeway and needed to pee. As she got off to go to a store to use the restroom, a news story came on about Caltech winning a competition backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to design a toilet. She could easily find a toilet, but what of the rest of the world.
I cannot imagine having to live with open defecation, the stench, and disease that accompany it. But that is a part of life for billions of people. Most of us just shake our head at the problem and the enormity of finding a solution. But for people like Jack Sim, it is a challenge that must be addressed.