Saul Landau: Politically committed film-maker


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The Independent Online

Saul Landau was a writer and Emmy Award-winning documentary film-maker whose work gave an unprecedented glimpse into Fidel Castro's Cuba and who co-wrote a riveting account of a Washington assassination linked to Augusto Pinochet. Part scholar, part journalist, part activist, Landau made more than 30 films and collaborated on more than a dozen books with an unabashed left-of-centre viewpoint. His films offered inside views of Castro's Cuba, Chile under Salvador Allende and Mexico during guerrilla uprisings in the 1990s.

"I think I'm objective, but I'm not detached," he said. "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." He first made a splash in 1968 with his documentary Fidel, which followed Castro on a week-long journey through the Cuban countryside. Although some dismissed it as propaganda, the film offered a view of Castro as a man of the people, chatting with villagers and striking out during an impromptu baseball game.

Landau made documentaries about Iraq, Syria, Angola and Jamaica, but his most acclaimed film was set in the US. Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang (1979), which Landau made with the Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler, examined the US government's attempts to suppress information about the harmful effects of nuclear radiation from open-air explosions in western states in the 1950s. It contained compelling interviews with Jacobs, a dying journalist who believed his cancer was caused by his exposure to fall-out from a 1957 test blast in Utah. Landau and his collaborators won an Emmy Award for best documentary. "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 of which Landau was a board member.

In 1976, two of Landau's associates at the Institute, Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt, were killed in a car bomb in Washington. Letelier was Chile's Ambassador to Washington when Allende was overthrown during the 1973 coup, Moffit his assistant. Landau's 1980 book Assassination on Embassy Row linked the killings to the Pinochet regime.

Landau went on to help investigate human rights abuses in Chile in the 1970s. His films and political statements led to frequent death threats, particularly while he was investigating the Letelier and Moffitt murders.

A graduate of the University of Wisconsin, where he received a master's in history, he began his political activism as a student by working in an effort to recall the red-baiting senator, Joseph McCarthy. He made his first visit to Cuba in 1960 as a researcher for the sociologist C Wright Mills.

During the early 1960s he was a member of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, which held that Castro's regime was unfairly maligned by the US government and the news media. He made six films about the island nation, including The Uncompromising Revolution (1990). Castro's "beard is greyer," the film noted, "but his charisma remains as strong as ever." Detractors said Landau had gone from objectivity to sycophancy,but 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 said in 1982. "You have 999 anti-Castro films. Why don't you run one pro-Castro film?"

From 1972 until the early 1990s, 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.

Matt Schudel, Washington Post

Saul Irwin Landau, film-maker: born New York 15 January 1936; married firstly Nina Serrano (marriage dissolved; one daughter, one son), secondly Rebecca Switzer (three daughters); died Alameda, California 9 September 2013.