The Mudslinging in the Wetlands Television: Documentary on environmental impact of Playa Vista project gets air time--and raises a furor over its objectivity.
Los Angeles Times
by Lorenza Munoz
04/24/1999, p. F-1

Hoping to shed some light on the furious controversy that is the Playa Vista / DreamWorks SKG development, filmmaker Sheila Laffey set out to make a documentary on the fate of the Ballona wetlands, which lie within the boundaries of the planned commercial project. She didn't expect to walk into a minefield that made those two years of filming her most arduous experience ever making documentaries.

"I came here rather naively from Hawaii," said Laffey, whose films include "We All Need the Forest" and "Hawaii in Transition: A Vision for a Sustainable Future." "I was surprised that nobody had made a film about this."

She soon found out why.

"It was torturous," she said. "Just torturous."

Laffey says she was rejected by 60 foundations to help with financing for the Ballona documentary. Those Hollywood environmental activists--usually front and center at Clinton fund-raisers--were nowhere to be found when she asked for interviews. Things got so bad she had to ask her 83-year-old mother to work as a production assistant on the film.

Nevertheless, the one-hour film, "The Last Stand: The Struggle for Ballona Wetlands," was completed and is scheduled to air on KCET and KOCE this Sunday.

KCET, which under its president, Al Jerome, has tried to strengthen its ties to Hollywood, will run the documentary in a "Point of View" time slot.

"It's a well-done documentary from a production standpoint," said Barbara Goen, vice president of communications for the station. As to the sensitivities of the Hollywood community on the Ballona project, she said: "We will continue to cover this issue on many other programs on KCET."

The film also has won a gold medal from the World Fest Houston, one of the oldest international film festivals in the U.S., where judges described it as "a must-see film" that documents "money and power over the right thing."

But "The Last Stand" has raised the ire of some environmentalists, the developers and the project's backers including Playa Vista , DreamWorks and Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, who represents the area.

"Its a misleading piece of propaganda," said David Herbst, vice president of Playa Vista . "If the project were worthy of the truth it would not have been rejected by 60 foundations."

Because the Ballona wetlands are one of the few remaining in California--a state whose coast at one time was lined with wetlands--the Playa Vista project has long been a hot-button issue.

The project has pitted environmentalists against one another, created unusual alliances among pro-environment politicians and developers and ignited a publicity nightmare for DreamWorks studio chiefs Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen.

The entire 1,087-acre project would house up to 13,000 residential units, 600,000 square feet of retail space and up to 5 million square feet of commercial development. Half of the proposed project is targeted for open space, including 340 acres of restored wetlands and 200 acres of parks.

Only one phase of the entire project has been approved for development--part of which is tied up in litigation with a federal judge ordering a halt to the filling of wetlands on the property. DreamWorks representatives finally closed escrow last week.

Laffey, who worked for the National Audubon Society in Hawaii, said she was motivated to make the film after realizing nobody was documenting the drama. And the 49-year-old filmmaker concedes that her film is not an objective look at the subject, but she hopes will propel people into action.

"I think we need to understand how we got to this point. How could we have lost 95% of the wetlands in California? How could we lose this one?" Laffey said. "As an idealist you think, 'Well, it's not built yet.' "

"The Last Stand"--which Laffey says cost $54,000 and has put her personally $15,000 in the hole--captures the most heated moments of the debate from 1995 to 1997, when protests were at their height and public hearings garnered some media attention.

Some of the footage includes the arrest of Martin Sheen, who tied himself to the Playa Vista headquarters; Venice activist Jerry Rubin, who went on a hunger strike demanding a meeting with the DreamWorks trio; and a woman who chained herself up to a bulldozer on the wetlands property.

Some Missing Voices in the Documentary

Conspicuously absent are the voices of the big three DreamWorks chiefs, the Playa developers and their major political allies in Los Angeles: Mayor Richard Riordan and Galanter. Galanter, who was elected into office in the late 1980s on an environmentalist platform, originally opposed the development but has since become a strong backer of the project.

U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, who was a key figure in securing a wetlands habitat in Bolsa Chica in Huntington Beach, also has not been vocal in the Ballona conflict.

DreamWorks has been drawn into the controversy because of its decision to build its studio on a 47-acre industrial parcel of land where the historic Howard Hughes aircraft hangar is located--representing roughly 4% of the planned development. That parcel is on a badly degraded section on the easternmost corner of the property that is already paved over in concrete. Still, the studio has been singled out by some environmentalists who have portrayed the Ballona project as "Spielberg's Other Lost World."

According to Laffey, nobody in Hollywood--with the exception of Sheen and Edward Asner, who narrates the film--wanted anything to do with her film.

"It's easier to support a rain forest in remote areas than an area under our noses," Laffey said. "Many of the people we talked to have either worked with the principals of the studio or are working with them or would like to work with them. They didn't want to jeopardize any possibilities."

Laffey said she was denied repeated requests for an interview by DreamWorks, Playa Vista and Galanter, so she went to public hearings and meetings where the developers and the studio heads unveiled their project.

But DreamWorks' spokesman Andy Spahn said it was clear Laffey was not out to document an objective story but rather to take a swipe at the development.

"Our understanding was that she was one of the people protesting Playa's development," Spahn said. "Her approach to us--that she was making a documentary--seemed disingenuous at best."

Added Galanter's spokesperson Niki Tennant: "We all had very serious doubts about the objectivity and fairness of the presentation of the material."

The film failed to point out that, historically only 99 acres of the total property has gone virtually untouched by man, with the vast majority already in a sorry state, said the Playa Vista project's Herbst.

"The history of this land is one of intensive man-made use from farming to aviation to being a dumping ground for the marina," he said. "At the end of the day the wetlands restoration project will cost Playa Vista $40 million. . . . Who else is going to step up and pay that kind of money?"

"The Last Stand" delves into the fractures that the massive development has caused among environmentalist groups in Los Angeles as well.

Some, like Heal the Bay, remain neutral on some parts of the development. But nearly 80 other groups--most vocally the Wetlands Action Network--oppose every aspect of the project.

The documentary portrays environmental groups such as the Audubon Society, Heal the Bay and Friends of the Ballona Wetlands as agreeing to the development. However, Mark Gold, executive director of Heal the Bay, says the film does not paint an honest picture of a complicated issue.

"We have never said ever that we support any component of this project," said Gold, who added that his group adamantly opposes development of the area west of Lincoln Boulevard and south of Ballona Creek. "[The issue] is portrayed in black and white. [The film] is definitely not challenging to the viewer regarding the complexities surrounding the issues."

Still, Chon Noriega, professor at the UCLA film and television department, said the notion that documentaries are objective forms of storytelling is outdated.

"The definition of documentary is extremely broad," he said. "That traditional definition as the [documentary being] the voice of God--if it ever was a dominant style--is not [applicable] anymore."

Photo: Sheila A. Laffey says Hollywood, except for two actor-activists, refused to talk about the controversy during the making of "The Last Stand: The Struggle for Ballona Wetlands."; Photographer: Sheila A. Laffey