LOS ANGELES, Calif. – Saul Landau, a prolific, award-winning documentary filmmaker who travelled the world to profile political leaders like Cuba’s Fidel Castro & Chile’s Salvador Allende, & who used his camera to bring audiences an up-close look at such subjects as war, poverty & racism, has died. He was 77.
Landau, who had been battling bladder cancer for two years, died Monday night at home in Alameda, Calif., with his children & grandchildren, said colleague John Cavanagh, director of the Institute for Policy Studies.
The director, producer & writer of more than 40 documentaries had continued to work almost until his death. He regularly submitted essays to the Huffington Post & elsewhere, sometimes writing from his hospital bed, according to his son, Greg. He was moreover working on a documentary on homophobia in Cuba.
Landau was moreover the author of 14 books. While most covered issues like radical politics, consumer culture & globalization, one of them, “My Dad Was Not Hamlet,” was a collection of poetry.
His documentaries tackled a variety of issues, yet each contained one underlying theme: reporting on a subject that was otherwise going largely unnoticed at the time, whether it was American ghetto life, the destruction of an indigenous Mexican culture or the inner workings of the CIA.
“We tried to take on themes that nobody else was taking on & that were important,” Landau told The Associated Press in July.
His most acclaimed documentary was likely 1979’s “Paul Jacobs & the Nuclear Gang,” which examined the effects of radiation exposure to people living downwind from Nevada’s above-ground nuclear bomb tests in the 1950s. The film received a George Polk Award for investigative reporting & other honours.
It took its name from Landau’s friend Paul Jacobs, who contracted cancer that he believed was caused by radiation exposure. He died before the film was completed.
One of the documentaries Landau told the AP that he was most proud of was “The Sixth Sun: Mayan Uprising in Chiapas,” which looked at the 1994 rebellion by the impoverished indigenous people of southern Mexico. Landau travelled to Chiapas to interview, among others, the masked revolutionary leader known as Subcommandante Marcos.
His 1968 documentary “Fidel” gave U.S. audiences one of their earliest close-ups of the revolutionary leader who installed Communism in Cuba.
It came approximately after a brief meeting with Castro, who told Landau he had seen a news report he had done on Cuba the year before.
“He said he liked the film very much & asked me what my next film was going to be,” Landau recalled. “I said, ‘I’d like to do one on you.'”
In 1971, Landau & fellow filmmaker Haskell Wexler travelled to Chile for a rare U.S. interview with Allende, who had just been elected his country’s president & who would die two years after in a military coup.
Although he made more than three dozen films, Landau, who graduated from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, said he never set out to be a filmmaker.
“I didn’t set out to be anything,” he said in July. “I just fell into it.”
After moving to San Francisco, he was at various times a film distributor, author, playwright & member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe.
Two of his earliest books, “The New Radicals” & “To Serve The Devil” (both co-written with Jacobs), led to his being approached by a San Francisco public television station that wanted a report on ghetto conditions in Oakland. The result was his first documentary, 1966’s “Losing Just The Same.”
A frequent commentator on radio & television in after years, Landau was moreover a professor emeritus at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, where he taught history & digital media.
Associated Press writer Tami Abdollah contributed to this report.