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By Marc Lee
Los Angeles is known for Hollywood and big studio pictures, but underneath that culture – supporting it – are many filmmakers who’re more interested in making movies that matter.

The perfect example of this is director Sheila A. Laffey’s SOUTH CENTRAL FARM. She documents a uniquely Los Angeles story about a poor Hispanic community, celebrity tree-sitters and a developer bent on taking over an urban farm.

The age-old story of rich vs. poor sounds simple, but Laffey uses it to highlight complex issues, such as the value of community farms, the power of self-sufficiency and the precarious nature of our food supply.

“The minute I heard about this issue, I knew it had all the story elements to reach a broad and diverse audience,” she says. “It was a terrific opportunity to advance this issue into the public consciousness – the tremendous social, economic and environmental benefits of urban farming.”

The farm, set on a 14-acre plot of land abutting train tracks in southern LA, provided a major fresh food source for the community that farmed it. Many of the fruits and vegetables that were grown there are unavailable in the limited number of grocery stores in the neighborhood, and usually available only at pricey gourmet markets.

“We did want to understand ourselves how a 14-acre farm that fed 350 families for over a decade – in a very poor area with so few trees and fewer food markets – could possibly be destroyed. The reality of the destruction is mind-boggling,”
says Laffey.

Bob Silvestri of the Environmental Media Fund acted as a consultant for the documentary. He points out that urban farms are not just a part of the recent locally grown food trend for consumers, but have an immediate impact on the people who operate them.

“The importance of the resurgence of urban farming and local small-scale farming cannot be understated,” he says. “Fittingly, it’s all starting with the humble efforts of the most disenfranchised in our society. We all owe the farmers and their supporters our gratitude.”

In the film, Laffey interviews the developer and gets his singularly business-oriented point of view, shows the community’s vibrant farm before the bulldozers arrive and the wasted plots of land after they leave.

“When I saw the scene with the farmers, their many supporters and tree-sitters – Julia Butterfly Hill, Daryl Hannah and John Quigley – I got very excited, turned on the camera, checked the settings but saw only black,” she says. “I frantically took out the instruction book and read that I should first take off the lens cap. That was the start of our filming at the farm.”

That probably wouldn’t happen at a studio, but neither would SOUTH CENTRAL FARM.