Santa Monica College professor Dr. Sheila Laffey knows a thing or two about protecting the environment. When she’s not grading papers and student documentaries, the former Program Coordinator for the National Audubon Society in Hawaii directs her own films, a majority of her oeuvre focusing on humanity’s relationship to the environment.
Laffey will be showing her (co-directed) film, ‘The Last Stand: Struggle for Ballona Wetlands’ this Tuesday, June 18 at Burton Chace Park in Marina del Rey. The documentary examines the controversial land-use issue related to a Playa Vista development and the Ballona Wetlands.
The multi-part Ballona Wetlands series has won over 10 awards and aired on PBS and features songs by Joni Mitchell, Joe Walsh of the Eagles and Kenny Loggins
After the screening, Laffey and several interviewees from the film will take part in a Q and A session.
Laffey spoke with the Daily Press about her documentary, balancing being a teacher and working as a documentarian, and her thoughts on the future of the planet.
What was the impetus of wanting to show this documentary? Why now?
We (The Sierra Club Airport-Marina Group) want people that don’t know the history of the area to understand what it was and understand what’s left and potentially preserve what is left. I’m excited and we want a full house (laughs). I’ve had many screenings of the film when it first came out, at festivals and colleges and other venues. Last time we had it at the Sierra Club, 5 years ago, we had over 100 people. I think that’s good for a monthly meeting.
How do you find the time to create documentaries and films when you’ve got a semester of teaching to do?
Well, when I lived in Hawaii I was teaching during the making of one, I grew up in Massachusetts and was a teaching assistant at Harvard during one, and I worked for the Audobon Society. All these were part-time positions so I find or make the time to.
A number of my films have been motivated from wanting to save threatened areas, such as a rainforest in Hawaii from an unwise geothermal plant which has been in news due to the volcano there. It just seems to be a calling. These things land in your lap and you have to do something about it.
For prospective students, how is your course at SMC? What have you enjoyed the most about it?
A course I teach is called Green Screen: Films on the Environment and Transformation. I’m very happy to say that I am noticing more and more students are awake about things. Do they say ‘woke’ now? Whatever the word is, I’m glad it’s happening.
We have some wonderful eco-friendly student leaders on campus who have been part of screenings. I recently showed the documentary ‘Straws’ about straw problems and plastic pollution. That image of a straw in a turtle’s mouth went viral and really affected the students. We had a student appear with a coat made completely of plastic straws. It was astounding and made a big impact on the other students.
I am finding that it’s not just the eco-minded students but other students are caring, too. There are many environment-protecting movements now and the impetus of all them is young people.
Could you detail the process of beginning then sustaining this documentary?
There was nothing to begin with so first thing — especially having moved from Hawaii — that meant doing a lot of research. As an academic, I love research and finding archival photos. We had to find some for what LA looked like years ago: LAX was farm fields, there was a river that then became channelized.
To go back and show that and create a context, to show we’ve lost 96% of the wetlands of Southern California… That’s why the activists were calling their movement the Last Stand. They were drawing a line in the stand saying no more, we’re not going to let even one more percent get developed.
Southern California is often dry so development people see an area and see dry old grass, nothing there. It rains and migratory birds would rest on the flyway. They’re losing their stopping places and we’re losing that nature and history. But as an academic, I like the idea of having different points of view, showing different arguments and letting people weigh them.
Just how long has it taken you to finish this? You noted this was an updated version.
We’ve kept updating it, they really are four separate films. We started the first one in ‘97 and it came out in ‘98, then there were some updates in between and an update in 2004 and … This isn’t just editing and shooting. It’s so time-consuming— promotion, research, finding people, interviewing… I don’t have children, but this process must be similar. (laughs)
As an environmentally-minded person, are you pessimistic or optimistic about the future of our planet?
I think I’m a little bit of both, hopeful and pessimistic. I see development and corporate interests that are very strong and I’m not sure what it is about our species, we have a tendency toward procrastination. It seems our species has procrastinated in regard to preserving mother nature.
But there are people who are waking up, especially through documentaries. With Netflix and Amazon, people watch documentaries at home and on-the-go. I can’t tell you the number of students that tell me that’s where they learn things.
But, yes, I think the tide is turning, towards the positive. We have young people and there are interesting possibilities from that, such as with the Green New Deal. It’s so easy to be gloom and doom about the environment, but I think we’ll be okay.
The Sierra Club Airport-Marina Group’s free screening of ‘The Last Stand: Struggle for Ballona Wetlands’ takes place in Marina del Rey at the Burton Chace Park Community Room Tuesday, June 18 at 7 p.m.