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
"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
"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
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
"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
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