Activist and filmmaker Saul Landau dies at 77


Saul Landau sits with Cuban leader Fidel Castro in 1968. (Courtesy of Landau Family)
September 10, 2013

Saul Landau, a writer and Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker whose work gave an unprecedented glimpse into Fidel Castro’s Cuba and who co-wrote a riveting account of a Washington assassination linked to the Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet , died Sept. 9 at his home in Alameda, Calif. He was 77.

The cause was bladder cancer, said his daughter Valerie Landau.

Part scholar, part journalist and part activist, Mr. Landau made more than 30 films and collaborated on more than a dozen books, most with an unabashed left-of-center point of view. His films offered inside views of Castro’s Cuba, Chile under Marxist leader Salvador Allende and Mexico during guerrilla uprisings in the 1990s.

“I think I’m objective, but I’m not detached,” Mr. Landau told The Washington Post in 1982. “All my films try to teach people without preaching too hard.”

“That’s why I make films . . . to raise people’s consciousness in one way or another.”

His first filmmaking splash came in 1968 with his documentary “Fidel,” which followed Castro on a week-long journey through the Cuban countryside. Apart from any ideological message, Mr. Landau made skillful use of lighting, landscape and music to give viewers a vivid impression of what was then a little-known culture.

Although some dismissed it as propaganda, the film nevertheless offered a view of Castro as a man of the people, chatting with villagers and striking out during an impromptu baseball game. New York Times film critic Vincent Canby called the film “in all technical aspects, first-rate” and “a remarkable document of contemporary history.”

Mr. Landau made documentaries about Iraq, Syria, Angola and Jamaica, but his most acclaimed film was set in the United States. “Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang” (1979), which Mr. Landau made with Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler and producer Jack Willis, examined the U.S. government’s attempts to suppress information about the harmful effects of nuclear radiation from open-air explosions in the American West in the 1950s.

The film contained compelling interviews with Jacobs, a dying journalist who believed his cancer was caused by his exposure to nuclear fallout from a 1957 test blast in Utah. Mr. Landau and his collaborators won an Emmy Award for best documentary and a George F. Polk Award for investigative journalism.

“It had a big impact on slowing the spread of and eventually stopping the construction of nuclear power plants,” said John Cavanagh, director of Washington’s Institute for Policy Studies, a liberal think tank where Mr. Landau was a board member. “He illuminated dozens of important issues for justice and the environment and peace for the U.S. and overseas.”

In 1976, two of Mr. Landau’s associates at the Institute for Policy Studies, Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt, were killed in a car bombing at Sheridan Circle on Massachusetts Avenue NW. Letelier was Chile’s ambassador to Washington when Allende was ousted and killed during a coup in 1973. Moffitt was his assistant.

Mr. Landau’s 1980 book, “Assassination on Embassy Row,” written with former Washington Post journalist John Dinges, was a true-life thriller that linked the killings to the right-wing military regime of Pinochet.

Newsweek critic Charles Kaiser praised Mr. Landau and Dinges as “brilliant investigators” and described their book as “a polemic against South American Fascists and American acquiescence in their activities.”

Mr. Landau helped investigate human rights abuses in Chile for Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) in the 1970s.

“In a show of his persistence and tenacity,” Miller said Tuesday in a statement, “he helped bring Augusto Pinochet to justice more than 30 years later.”

Since the late 1960s, Mr. Landau’s family said, his provocative films and political statements led to frequent death threats, particularly while he was investigating the murders of Letelier and Moffitt.

“I’m sure he must have been terrified at times,” Cavanagh said, “but he never showed it.”

Saul Irwin Landau was born Jan. 15, 1936, in the Bronx. He was a 1957 graduate of the University of Wisconsin, where he received a master’s degree in history a year later.

He began his life of political activism as a student by working in an effort to recall Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the red-baiting Wisconsin Republican.

“I wanted to participate, I wanted to make a difference,” he told the Capital Times of Madison, Wis., in 2006. “We’re all players in the drama of our time.”

Mr. Landau made his first visit to Cuba in 1960 as a researcher for renowned sociologist C. Wright Mills, whose 1961 book “Listen, Yankee,” examined Castro’s revolution.

During the early 1960s, Mr. Landau was a member of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, which held that Castro’s regime was unfairly maligned by the U.S. government and the news media. (Lee Harvey Oswald tried to recruit members to a New Orleans branch of the committee in 1963, months before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.)

After moving to San Francisco, Mr. Landau was part of a mime troupe for which he wrote a play, “The Minstrel Show,” that toured for two years. He later wrote for Ramparts magazine and worked for KQED, a public TV station in San Francisco, where he got his first taste of filmmaking.

From 1972 until the early 1990s, Mr. Landau lived in Washington and was on the faculty of American University. In more recent years, he taught literature, film and foreign policy at California State Polytechnic University at Pomona.

His books included historical and political studies and a detective novel, “Stark in the Bronx,” published shortly before his death.

His marriage to Nina Serrano ended in divorce.

Survivors include his second wife, Rebecca Switzer of Alameda; two children from his first marriage, Greg Landau and Valerie Landau, both of Alameda; three daughters from his second marriage, Carmen Landau and Marie Landau, both of Albuquerque, and Julia Landau of Oakland; a sister; seven grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Captivated by Cuba since his first visit in 1960, Mr. Landau made six films about the island nation, including “The Uncompromising Revolution,” which was broadcast on PBS in 1990. By then, Castro had been Cuba’s unchallenged leader for more than 30 years.

Castro’s “beard is grayer,” the film noted, “but his charisma remains as strong as ever.” Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara was praised as “a saint.”

Detractors said Mr. Landau’s admiring portrait crossed the line from objectivity to “sycophantic fantasy,” in the words of New York Times critic Walter Goodman. Mr. Landau “trails after Castro as he visits with workers, doctors and scientists and looks into a microscope,” Goodman wrote. “Hey, there’s Fidel at a volleyball game. What a guy!”

But Mr. Landau, who had a lifelong friendship with Castro and other Cuban leaders, made no apologies.

“I found Fidel a sympathetic figure and a hell of a good actor,” he told The Post in 1982. “You have 999 anti-Castro films. So why don’t you run one pro-Castro film?”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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