SMC film professor produces environmental film

Santa Monica College film studies professor Sheila Laffey has reason to be excited. The environmental film she has been working on for almost five years has finally hit the festival circuit. Screenings along the west coast have yielded big crowds, and the standing room only showings at the Laemmle’s Monica 4-Plex in Santa Monica last week were no exception. The crowds came to watch “Who Bombed Judi Bari?,” a Laffey-produced film about Judi Bari, an environmental activist injured in a car bombing in 1990. Bari was a figurehead of the Earth First! movement, a group of conservationists who protested logging and deforestation in America’s woodlands in the latter half of the 20th century.

Bari and passenger Darryl Cherney were injured on the way to lead the Redwood Summer protests in Santa Cruz, Calif.

“It was the most pain I had ever felt,” Bari said in the film. “I remember begging them to let me die.”

During her recovery, the FBI placed blame on Bari and Cherney, charging them with possession and transportation of explosives. The film outlines the challenges Bari and Cherney faced recovering from injuries while fighting the allegations filed against them.

“The film actually channels Judi’s spirit,” said Laffey, an executive producer of the movie. “It inspires people. It’s the activists up against the system. It’s always hard work.”

Charges against Bari and Cherney were eventually dropped due to lack of evidence. In 2002, the pair won a $4.2 million civil case against the FBI for civil rights violations, though Bari died in 1997 of cancer.

Much of the content in the film comes from a video interview of Bari taken shortly before her death.

“When you have someone’s death bed deposition as the core of the film, it’s pretty powerful,” Laffey said.

“They went into my home and tried to pull nails out of the windows to try and match them to nails in the bomb,” Bari said in the film, recounting the circumstances surrounding the investigation. “It was not your normal investigation; they were just trying to frame me.”

Though she eventually recovered from injuries associated with the bombing, Bari’s life was filled with challenges.

“Most people don’t know that Judi lived in pain for the rest of her life,” Cherney said at the screening. “After the bombing she would cry throughout the night every night.”

The film was directed by Mary Liz Thomson, and features music by Bari, Cherney and other activist musicians. Scenes of activist rallies and archived news reports are shown between clips of protesters before giant bulldozers and logging machines.

“Darryl is a very good archivist,” Laffey said. “He was great at tracking down footage and music.”

Laffey, who has been teaching at SMC for 13 years, likened her producing job to that of an orchestral conductor.

“Somebody needs to know how the instruments sound, but doesn’t need to know how to play all of them,” Laffey said, laughing. “I helped bring people and resources to the table, but it’s really a team effort.”

Laffey was appointed as an adviser to the film during early planning stages. She said that the project was originally intended to be a dramatic feature.

“Dramatic films are great, but this story worked better as a documentary,” Laffey said.

One of the classes Laffey teaches at SMC covers the history of documentaries. She has recently seen a growing number of students interested in informative films.

“People want to know what’s really going on,” Laffey said. “They really want to know the truth.”

So far, the film has been shown at select screenings in San Francisco, Santa Monica, Washington D.C., and Oakland. Laffey said that the film gives good suggestions to answer the question posed in the title, but could not elaborate further.

The group is currently looking for donations and distribution.