We’re told not to talk about religion or politics at the dinner table but there’s another taboo that’s never raised and needs to be: Sanitation (although maybe not so much at dinner…). 40% of the world’s population does not have a toilet; even in the poorest regions, more people have cellphones than toilets. Outdoor defecation is not just a health hazard but a physical danger for women.
One crusader has decided to make the elimination of outdoor defecation his life’s mission: Jack Sim, aka “Mr. Toilet,” a Singaporean serial entrepreneur who gave up his multiple business ventures to serve this essential social need.
In honor of World Toilet Day on November 19 (one of his major accomplishments), find out who Jack Sim is in the documentary, “Mr. Toilet: The World’s #2 Man,” opening this Friday at Laemmle’s Monica Film Center. And he’s not just some philanthropist who drops in from on high to solve problems by throwing money at them; he was born in the slums of Singapore and knows firsthand what a lack of sanitation means.
At first you think he’s just a quirky, eccentric jokester who runs around in a toilet costume talking to school kids, appearing in parades and talking to TV interviewers (the BBC told him he could not use the word “shit”). He’s a master networker, is chock-full of ideas and energy, never sits still except to paint or draw, both of which he does pretty well (including painting a giraffe on a light pole in his neighborhood). His kids describe him as a 12-year-old trapped in the body of a 60-year-old man.
He also can be very unfocused and hard to rein in by his staff, who frustratedly try to stay on top of the projects he gets called to do. Very much a “big think” guy, he’s created some amazing marketing campaigns and recruited celebrities to create awareness about the problem of human sanitation. He’s also irresistibly charismatic and a complete natural with people from the highest and richest echelons of society to the lowest and poorest. It’s all very entertaining to watch initially.
But as you dig deeper into this story, you’ll realize that having a place “to go” isn’t just an inconvenience, it’s a problem that impacts 2.4 billion people worldwide. In India alone, 200,000 children die each year from lack of safe sanitation, while women are regularly raped because they have to defecate in public spaces.
Filmed over five years by Lily Zepeda, we travel with Sim from Singapore, where we get to know his family, to China, to India, to the UN; some of the scenes were seriously gross enough to make me gag out loud, but that’s reality for millions. And that’s why his work is so essential.
It’s not all sunshine and roses. While Sim powwows with world leaders and influencers, he has accomplished some amazing work with his World Toilet Organization (aka the “other” WTO), including getting Singapore to present the UN resolution to create World Toilet Day. But when brought in by the government of India, he is thwarted by ignorance, incompetence, bureaucracy and inertia in places that most desperately need what he’s trying to get done.
This story is one that not only needs to be told but needs to be seen by as many people as possible. The world’s population grows daily; the planet is in crisis and solutions that already exist must be brought online now. Along with director Lily Zepeda, Jack Sim will do a Q&A at Laemmle’s Monica Film Center following the 7:20 shows on Friday and Saturday night. Do yourself a favor and get inspired by him. Tickets here: https://www.laemmle.com/film/mr-toilet-worlds-2-man
TONI MORRISON: THE PIECES I AM
Although the biographical documentary “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” came out earlier this year, you can now view it on Hulu and other streaming platforms, and in 2020, it will be part of the PBS “American Masters” series. Since its release, author Toni Morrison, a Nobel Laureate in Literature (one of only 15 women), who also received The Pulitzer Prize, The Presidential Medal of Honor, The Coretta Scott King Award and National Book Critics’ Circle Award, has passed away.
Fortunately, she did get to see this portrait of her life and work. Notoriously protective of her private and public image, director/photographer and long-time friend Timothy Greenfield-Sanders was grateful she trusted him to document the journey of her life; when she finally saw it, she told him, “I like her.” Perhaps best known among her many works are “The Color Purple” and “Beloved.”
“Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” was nominated for Best Archival Documentary by Critics Choice Documentary Awards. I was privileged to attend a private screening on Monday night, where director Sanders and composer Kathryn Bostic did a Q&A with Tabitha Jackson, Director of the Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program, where the film premiered in 2019.
This is a deeply considered, beautifully structured and intimate look at one of the most important writers of our time, who wrote uncompromisingly for a black audience about the black experience. She talks about “the white gaze,” something she felt many black authors labored under, writing as if to explain things to a white audience. About Ralph Ellison’s classic, “The Invisible Man,” she said, “Invisible to whom?”
The documentary does a masterful job of connecting why she wrote what she wrote when she wrote it through interviews with her and Oprah Winfrey, Walter Mosley, Angela Davis and more; it also features beautiful works by black artists such as Mickalene Thomas (her opening credits are amazing), Jacob Lawrence, Kara Walker, Kerry James Marshall and others.
Hulu offers “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” to subscribers; Prime Video offers it for rent or purchase. However you choose to see it, you will come away admiring both the film and its subject.
Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.