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'The Last Stand' Increases Awareness of the Environment

By Emily Edwards

The Ballona Wetlands, from <em>The Last Stand</em>.

For the dissident audience the mission of the environmental documentary is to corrode the mantra of “development equals progress, jobs, and a strong economy.” For an apathetic audience, the mission is to open a wedge in the indifference. For younger audiences the mission is to educate and recruit a new generation to activism. For sympathetic audiences the mission is to inspire and energize the troops.

This is the complex, persuasive task The Last Stand attempts in telling the knotty story of the Ballona Wetlands and the proposed Playa Vista development. Though the film includes voices antagonistic to its cause, The Last Stand ( makes its position clear: stop development of the Ballona Wetlands. It is a documentary aimed at a Southern California audience, with implications for us all. Florida faces similar problems, as documented in Daniel Elias’ 1998 film Wasting of a Wetland. Orrin Pilkey's The Beaches Are Moving (1993) investigates the problems created by the construction of seawalls, as developers hope to protect their commercial establishments with hardscape. And the episode "Conserving America: The Wetlands" of the Conserving America series (1994) produced by WQED in association with the National Wildlife Federation, examines the wetlands issue in other parts of the country.

Central to the debate in The Last Stand is one of Southern California's last remaining wetland ecosystems, and, as one of Los Angeles' last open spaces, prime real estate for the Playa Capital developers, a company planning a project so massive that The Wall Street Journal predicted it would be America's biggest real estate development of the next decade. With great passion but modest funding, producer Sheila Laffey and Echo Mountain Productions set out to visually explore the many issues surrounding this development.

The opening moments of the film primed me for inspiration: a beautiful, low angle tracking shot through a marshy field of yellow wildflowers with Joni Mitchell singing about paving over paradise. Ed Asner as host begins to lay out the issue like a Butterick pattern that quickly gets complex. Many diverse voices create a complicated design: representatives of the African-American community worried about jobs for “at- risk youth”; American Indians worried about young people unable to connect to ancestral lands; artists, actors, activists, developers, lawyers, parents, teachers, filmmakers, politicians and union reps. Facts weave a complicated tapestry of history, science, politics and business.

But Laffey's film is hardly one-sided. Over the course of the documentary, several people make pro-development arguments. This isn't objectivity, but an important persuasive technique. A multiple-sided message is more balanced, preventing dissident audiences from excessive mental arguing as they watch, and more effective with the educated audiences likely to be watching the public television broadcast of the program. Finally, it's important to hear the developer's points in order to counter them.

One way documentary filmmakers have overcome the problem of a complex subject is to create a distinct overall structure—in this case, a chronological structure, which lets audiences see the development of an issue over time. The strongest example of chronology in The Last Stand comes with the heron hatchlings, filmed by Bruce Robertson, who himself produced a documentary short on the same issue, with a focus on the displaced wetland wildlife. We see the struggle of these birds to raise a family interwoven with the rest of the struggle to save the Ballona Wetlands. Yet, the use of the herons remains focused on environmental activism without becoming a nature documentary. We don’t learn anything about their mating or feeding patterns; this is a heron family trying to survive, creating a sense of urgency against the impending tragedy of bulldozers plowing through depressingly massive areas of other wetland pockets.

Another way to structure a complex subject is to create divisions for each main issue, like chapters in a book. The material on the importance of the Ballona Wetlands to fish and fisheries is a segment, as is the material on restoration of other wetlands. While audiences learn much about the function of wetlands and their importance to the broader environment from these segments, the documentary remains dedicated to its persuasive argument. This is a key difference between nature and environmental documentaries: nature films tend to be more educational than persuasive. Though problems such as diminished habitats may be obvious, nature documentaries generally stop short of promoting viewer action.

One of the most interesting aspects of this documentary for me—and what makes it so unique to Southern California—is the role of Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks Studios in the proposed Playa Vista development. The entertainment industry is one that prides itself on being environmentally friendly. According to a website devoted to the topic (, major studios began in the 1990s to change many of their practices to result in less waste, a cleaner and healthier environment and a wise use of natural resources. Yet, studios, like any construction company, use resources and create waste. Watching The Last Stand was the first time I considered the environmental repercussions from the manufacture of entertainment product. One irony of DreamWorks’ participation in the development project is that a frequent message of Spielberg's films embodies the disaster of human attempts to manage, improve and profit from nature. Happily, DreamWorks did pull out of the development project.

I came away from viewing The Last Stand realizing that this piece had been made to reward and energize the people committed to the cause of the Ballona Wetlands. The dissident audience would likely consider an air-conditioned mall much closer to paradise than a swamp, and an apathetic audience is too impatient for such a complex tapestry. Yet, the film performs an important function by helping to unite many players with one goal.

The environmental documentary has become an important genre with a significant history. The River (Pare Lorentz, 1937) is a classic example of a filmmaker attempting to explore the heavy tread of civilization across unspoiled land. The body of work in this area has grown considerably. In the last decade environmental films and videos have become so important that they have their own festivals and distributors. Cornell University hosts an environmental film festival, as does Washington, DC, and California hosts the Earth Vision Film Festival. Distributors such as The Video Project have catalogues with whole sections of environmental documentaries. Finally, community television projects such as Pennsylvania's Greenworks TV present a collection of programs on environmental issues. In spite of frequent funding difficulties, these initiatives show the persistence of producers hoping to shape public perception and political policy.

The approaches to environmental documentaries range from dramatized (Louisiana Story, Robert Flaherty, 1948) to traditional narrated style (Journey to Planet Earth, Hal and Marilyn Weiner, 1998) to non-narrative (Anima Mundi, Godfrey Reggio, 1991) to the mix of styles in The Last Stand. The messages are not new, but increasingly significant. I’m glad that Sheila Laffey and Echo Mountain Productions have joined the ranks of filmmakers doing this kind of work.

The success of documentaries like The Last Stand should be measured by awareness created, people moved and acres saved, rather than dollars earned. Since the original production in 1999, Laffey updated the program, which aired on 30 PBS stations in 2000. Equally important to the cause are screenings at local venues, public hearings and program dubs Laffey has sent to coastal commissioners. Efforts to publicize the battle against the wetland development include producing the original program, the updated program and a 12-minute short, Ballona Wetlands-The Ongoing Struggle, which uses the combined footage of the many activists dedicated to documenting various developments in the struggle. Though The Last Stand has received much attention, as well as Cine Golden Eagle and WorldFest Houston awards, Laffey reports that she is still fundraising to recover the costs of producing the documentary.

One final thought. As I was watching images of smoggy air and clogged highways, it occurred to me more than once that we haven't the courage to face the root problem threatening our wetlands, our air, our beaches and forests: the ever-increasing human population. I feel better knowing that Laffey and her associates—Todd Brunelle, Michael Tobias, Bruce Robertson, Lorraine Salk, Leslie Purcelle, Beryl Teunissen, Joey Delux and Jennifer Ingle—are working to keep this swelling population alert to the environmental problems we all help to create.


Emily Edwards teaches media writing and production in the Department of Broadcasting and Cinema at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She is the producer and director of the documentaries Dead Heads: An American Subculture (Films for the Humanities) and Wondrous Events: Foundations Of Folk Belief (Penn State Media).