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The Feedback: Lily Zepeda's 'Mr Toilet: The World's #2 Man'

By Tom White

From Lily Zepeda's "Mr Toilet: The World's #2 Man." Courtesy of Lily Zepeda

Since IDA's DocuClub was relaunched in 2016 as a forum for sharing and soliciting feedback about works-in-progress, many DocuClub alums have since premiered their works on the festival circuit and beyond. In an effort to both monitor and celebrate the evolution of these films to premiere-ready status, we reached out to the filmmakers as they were either winding their way through the festival circuit, or gearing up for it.

In this edition of "The Feedback," we spotlight Lily Zepeda’s Mr Toilet: The World’s #2 Man.

We caught up with Zepeda via email as was readying her film for its world premiere at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Synopsis (provided by the filmmaker): It's a dirty job, but Singaporean entrepreneur Jack Sim is fighting the world's sanitation crisis one loo at a time. Mr. Toilet, as he likes to be called, founded the other WTO, The World Toilet Organization, and after 13 years spent lobbying 193 countries, he created “UN World Toilet Day.” But he is soon to learn there is a price to pay for being the World’s #2 superhero.

How did you meet your protagonist, Jack—aka Mr. Toilet?

Caltech in Pasadena won the grand prize for the Bill & Melinda Gates Re-Invent the Toilet Challenge in 2012, and I just became so obsessed with this story. I couldn’t believe there was an actual global toilet challenge! But after my interviews with them, the prize-winning loo engineers introduced me to a Singaporean man (Jack Sim) who wanted to “turn poop culture into pop culture.” Within five minutes of our first call with Mr. Toilet, my producer Tchavdar Georgiev and I knew we struck gold! Nobody was willing to talk crap like Mr. Toilet.

Jack’s ebullient spirit drives his entrepreneurial mission, yet he faces some challenges, both in India, as an outsider and as a friendly rival to Dr. Pathak, and with his family, who resign themselves to his being a de facto absentee dad. Talk about the editorial process in factoring in these tensions, these countervailing forces to his mission.

What originally drew me to Mr. Toilet was his childlike demeanor and wild humor. He would say things to me like “Lily, you should sing a song to your toilet every day and send flowers to it on Valentine’s Day because it serves you 365 days a year.” He really made me think deeply and laugh at the same time, so it was important for us to use his humor to drive the story. It allowed us an entry point for diving deeper into the issues as well as the human side of Jack as the film progressed. Lots of people are not only turned off by hearing about yet another global social issue, but also about one that is gross to talk about. The family portion really helped us add another dimension to Mr. Toilet’s character, and the tension between work and family is something everyone can relate to. Dr. Pathak is an important part of the sanitation movement—Jack calls him “The King of Toilets in India!” So through Dr. Pathak, not only could we provide another important lens into the Indian culture, but also provide a contrast in approach to our main character. Jack’s jokes can only go so far in a feature film, so it was important for us to show the realities he came up against in fighting such huge crisis. Our use of animation was used to provide some comic relief and unique visuals for his backstory as well as a way for audiences to see inside the mind of a character who has a 12-year-old child-like worldview.

Did you always envision Mr. Toilet as a feature? Was it ever a short?

There already is a three-minute short made about Mr. Toilet, so in my mind I always knew this should be a feature. He’s not just Mr. Toilet! He’s an artist, a troublemaker, a child-like figure, a dad, a husband and a businessman. There’s so much meat there for feature. My team and I spent five years following him in four different countries.

What’s the latest on Jack and his mission? And what’s happening with the anti-open defecation initiative in India?

To be honest, it’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on with the India open defecation mission because there are so many conflicting reports in the news.  However, when I checked in with an organization that works near the villages where we filmed, they reported that there have been more toilets built, making it 50 percent open defecation-free now. In the rural areas I think it’s just going to take more time. Indian Prime Minister Modi has an ambitious goal to have the whole country open defecation-free by October 2019. I think it will take more time than that and I see Jack continuing to find ways to work there as long as he possibly can. He just built the second World Toilet College in India, which is a platform used to educate and empower people about sanitation and building toilets. And, he eventually plans to go back to Andhra Pradesh to find a way to keep WTO’s partnership with the government.

What is your outreach strategy with respect to Mr. Toilet?

After our world premiere, my team and I plan to sit down with Jack to see how the film can best serve World Toilet Organization and their goals in the next year. World Toilet Organization is always growing and they work in new places all over the world each year, so we plan to work with an impact strategist to devise an advocacy campaign.

With regard to your screening at DocuClub, what were your expectations going into that screening?

This was a really important screening for us. With such a diverse group, we were really hoping to get lots of different opinions. And, it was one of the last opportunities for us to make any bigger structural changes to the story. We wanted people to be brutally honest, and they were.

Was DocuClub your first public screening?

We had a few private screenings before, but this was our first public one and definitely our biggest!

What were the central challenges in your film that you felt could benefit the most from the DocuClub screening, and what were the most valuable takeaways from the screening?

My team—especially my editors Monique and Hee-Jae—had been working so hard to help shape the story for months before this screening, and when you’re in the edit room for long stretches, you definitely need to get out of that bubble and hear what’s resonating with people, what’s confusing them and what may even be boring them. The major relief was that everyone loved how funny and entertaining our character is. And they LOVED the animation and couldn't wait to see the completed versions. Another major benefit from this screening was getting clearer on our ending. I realized it had to be not just about his toilet mission, but about his reaffirmation as a person, what he’s learned and how he recovers from a setback.

What observations did you find most surprising and unexpected?

The unexpected part was how split people were about the issue vs. the character—some people wanted to hear more facts about the crisis or technology, and some people didn't care and just wanted the focus more on the character. It’s definitely a character-based film, however the character (and even his name) is so closely tied with the issue. So there is a careful balance we had to play.

When you went back to the edit room, what were the key changes you made?

The key changes were refining the ending and sprinkling in small edits throughout the whole story that made his mission and timeline even clearer for people.

What were the key factors that determined that your film was ready for your festival premiere?

Overall, people were entertained and very curious about the story. Asking lots of questions about the character and story show that people are engaged and they care about the character. That’s a good sign! Once we got to a place where people pointed out really minor notes, then we knew the cut was in a good place and festival ready. Also this story felt very timely for many reasons and people were showing excitement for talking about POOP and TOILETS. The movie Crazy Rich Asians really helped put Singapore in people’s minds, and after the short film Period. End of Sentence won an Oscar, cultural issues like menstruation—which relate to the stigma of using the toilet—were finally getting attention.

Mr. Toilet: The World’s #2 Man makes its world premiere at Hot Docs on April 27.


Tom White is editor of Documentary magazine.