If Lily Zepeda makes audiences laugh until they shit their pants, her film is a success. The director’s debut feature Mr. Toilet: The World’s #2 Man harnesses the power of poo and the effectiveness of humour to inspire audiences to give a shit. The doc finds a great character in Jack Sim, AKA Mr. Toilet, a Singapore philanthropist and humourist eager to create safe and sanitary spaces for people to go the bathroom.
Sim’s mission through the World Toilet Organization (or “the other WTO,” as he says) draws upon his experience growing up in the Singapore slums. He empathizes with the 2.4 billion people worldwide who have better access to iPads than toilets. The doc chronicles his campaigns, which include successfully lobbying the United Nations to declare November 19 “World Toilet Day” and pestering the local by-law officer by painting hydro polls with giraffe patterns. Shot over five years in four different countries and five different languages, Mr. Toilet humorously opens audiences’ eyes to a cause they might take for granted several times per day.
Zepeda recalls discovering the story while hearing about an investment by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that aimed to reinvent the toilet. Zepeda says that experts at Caltech, who were working on said toilet challenge, prompted her to seek out Mr. Toilet. Naturally, his name piqued her interest.
Zepeda credits her background in journalism for inspiring the initial interviews, but says the scope, silliness and significance of Sim’s work demanded more. “I approached it in a journalistic fashion to find the facts and the people that were involved,” says Zepeda, “but my intuition was telling me this had to be bigger than just a story.” The director says she found a tag team with producer/writer Tchavdar Georgiev, whose doc credits include Off the Rails (2016), Finders Keepers (2015), and The American Meme (2018). “We really complement each other because I was good at connecting with people, creating relationships with the characters and finding information, but he knew the industry side, story consulting and how to make it a film,” says Zepeda on shaping Sim’s story.
Sim is pure gold as a character. His extroverted personality brings manic energy to every event and his indefatigable happiness is a welcome reminder that some people actually want to make a difference. The infectiousness of his sense of humour is evident in the style of the film, which mixes playful animation with observational documentary and interviews. “Animation was one way we could illustrate what’s in Jack’s mind and his childlike view of the world,” says Zepeda. “That drew me to him as a character: he’s remained his 12-year-old self, but he uses his child-like genius to solve world problems. He’s unafraid to do that in a way that may not be socially acceptable. Like his kids say, he’s a 12-year-old trapped in a 60-year-old man’s body.”
When asked about the general reaction to a movie about poo and toilets, Zepeda says people openly relate to Sim’s mission. “People start telling me intimate stories about themselves, like this one time they couldn’t find a bathroom, or they were stuck in traffic, or someone wouldn’t let them use the bathroom, or some other embarrassing story,” she observes. “We can all relate to that because we’re human and we all go to the bathroom. All of a sudden, someone’s guard is down and they feel comfortable having this conversation.” The humour is an effective catalyst for conversations, even though Mr. Toilet offers cringe-worthy sights. Zepeda follows Sim to squat holes in Chinese schools, including a fly-ridden facility deemed the cleanest in the land, and to the fields of India where one’s only choice is to squat in the open when nature calls. The doc respects people’s privacy while capturing the concerns of relieving oneself in the open, but audiences taken aback will see the film’s punchline that being without access to sanitary facilities is no joke.
“I was drawn in because this is a taboo subject,” explains Zepeda. “It’s not about making people uncomfortable. What’s more uncomfortable is the fact that girls are being raped. It’s more uncomfortable that people are getting sick. I’m willing to cross the lines of the taboo and Jack is too. That’s the way to change the conversation.” Mr. Toilet confronts the social stigma associated with a body’s natural rhythms, which makes it a fine companion piece for this year’s Oscar-winning short Period. End of Sentence. Both films reveal how a simple biological function puts women in danger, since the open-toilet practice in India leaves women vulnerable to rape. Similarly, girls can’t go to school in regions with tightly patriarchal values since the absence of sanitary practices requires them to stay home.
The film zeroes in on India’s effort to overhaul its bathroom culture when Sim lands the Clean India campaign. It’s the biggest challenge yet for the WTO, with a target of 6 million toilets. Zepeda follows Sim as he encounters bureaucratic indifference and apathy from citizens who distrust the outsider’s view. Sim’s humour is lost in translation, but his spirit never wanes as things look to be going down the crapper.
The director sympathized with Sim’s attempts to be funny while handling resistance to his campaign for more toilets. “I felt that related to the struggles of his entire life of bumping up against bureaucracy and always having to follow the rules in Singapore,” observes Zepeda. “Optimism is something that Jack has to have, otherwise he would just be at home drinking cocktails,” she laughs. The film knows when to run with Sim’s silliness and when to dial it back to accentuate the gravity of the situation.
Sim’s sense of humour evidently rubs off as Zepeda, as evidenced when she describes her five-year-journey with the film. “I’m even more comfortable talking about this subject with other people right away without a filter,” admits Zepeda. “With every toilet I use, I look at the logo and notice the brand and who’s where. I’ve gone to toilet fairs with this film and Kohler was our very first sponsor—they were helping Caltech with the toilet challenge. When I’ve traveled, I’ve had to be open to the different ways people go to the bathroom. I had to learn how to squat in an Indian toilet.”
Such a comment usually brings a response of TMI, but Zepeda’s film has a way of encouraging one to loosen up and recognize the real shit going on. Bathroom humour is rarely so effective.