Sheila Laffey says her 2000 documentary on the fate of the Ballona Wetlands is just as needed today

By Michael Aushenker

“The Last Stand” directors Sheila Laffey and Todd Brunelle join narrator Ed Asner on a perch overlooking the Ballona Wetlands Photo courtesy of Sheila Laffey

“The Last Stand” directors Sheila Laffey and Todd Brunelle join narrator Ed Asner on a perch overlooking the Ballona Wetlands Photo courtesy of Sheila Laffey

While it may seem like something of a flashback when the Sierra Club Airport Marina Group hosts a screening of 2000’s “The Last Stand: The Struggle for the Ballona Wetlands,” the documentary’s producer insists that the film’s message remains as relevant today as when it was made.

Sheila Laffey, who with Todd Brunelle co-directed the hour-long film years before the first phase of the Playa Vista development was completed, will be on hand to discuss the project during a free screening next Thursday at the Burton Chace Park Community Room in Marina del Rey.

Laffey’s Telly Award-winning documentary, hosted by actor Ed Asner and featuring music by Joni Mitchell, examines the land-use battle that erupted in the late 1990s when environmentalists opposed plans to build a DreamWorks Studio complex in Playa Vista, arguing that construction would threaten the wetland ecosystem.

The drama over the fate of the wetlands involved a cast of scientists, environmentalists, community organizers, developers, labor unions, Native American groups, politicians and Hollywood players.

“I had connected with the location even before I lived here,” Laffey said of trips to the area while a resident of Hawaii, where she also made environmental films. “We would drive past this area that really intrigued me, where you can see egrets even east of Lincoln [Boulevard] and you can actually smell the nature. It was very tangible to me, how it was sort of sandwiched in-between the urban landscape of mini-malls that were nondescript and clearly cemented over. It was sort of magic for me.”

Laffey believes her film, which warranted follow-up featurettes in 2003 and 2004, remains timely — particularly when it comes to the fate of the drier upland areas of the preserve and impending decisions about construction of a nature center facility proposed by the Annenberg Foundation.

“It’s important to understand the history of an area when something like the Annenberg building is proposed,” Laffey said. “Over 100 groups were part of the coalition to save all of the Ballona Wetlands. People like Kathy Knight [conservation chair of Sierra Club Airport Marina Group], who spent 20 years trying to save it. It brings this area to the fore so people understand why it was saved in the first place. We’ve lost 96% of wetlands in Southern California. Scientists say we’ve lost 90% in California.”

Laffey, a professor of film studies at Santa Monica College, moved to Santa Monica in 1997. She presently teaches such courses as “Green Screen: Films on the Environment and Transformation,” “History of Documentary” and a course on Alfred Hitchcock.

As an associate producer, Laffey is presently seeking distribution for another environmental documentary — “Love Thy Nature,” narrated by Liam Neeson. She is also getting involved in an expanded version of “Speak for the Trees,” about the successful fight to save 110 acres of Oregon woodland.

Ultimately, Laffey believes in the old maxim that one can anticipate future problems by learning from history.

“If we’re out of balance, it’s not a surprise that the planet is out of balance,” she said.

“The Last Stand” screens at 7 p.m. on Thursday, June 26, at the Burton Chace Park Community Room, 13650 Mindanao Way, Marina del Rey. Call (310) 437-3523 or visit