Saul Landau, a prolific, award-winning documentary filmmaker who traveled the world profiling political leaders like Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Chile’s Salvador Allende and used his camera to draw attention to war, poverty and racism, died Monday night at home in Alameda, Calif. He was 77 and had been battling bladder cancer for two years.
The director, producer and writer of more than 40 documentaries had continued to work almost until his death. He regularly submitted essays to the Huffington Post and elsewhere, sometimes writing from his hospital bed. He was also working on a documentary on homophobia in Cuba.
His documentaries tackled a variety of issues, but 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.
His most acclaimed documentary was likely 1979’s “Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang,” which examined the effects of radiation exposure on people living downwind from Nevada’s above-ground nuclear bomb tests in the 1950s. The film received a George Polk Award for investigative reporting and other honors.
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Landau told the AP one of the documentaries 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 traveled 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 about after a brief meeting with Castro, who told Landau he had seen a news report he had done on Cuba the year before.
In 1971, Landau and fellow filmmaker Haskell Wexler traveled to Chile for a rare U.S. interview with Allende, who had just been elected his country’s president and who would die two years later in a military coup.
Although he made more than three dozen films, Landau said he never set out to be a filmmaker.
Landau graduated from the U. of Wisconsin, Madison, and after moving to San Francisco he was at various times a film distributor, author, playwright and member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe.
He authored 14 books; most covered issues like radical politics, consumer culture and globalization, but one, “My Dad Was Not Hamlet,” was a collection of poetry.
Two of his earliest books, “The New Radicals” and “To Serve The Devil” (both co-written with Paul Jacobs), led a San Francisco public television station to approach him about doing a report on ghetto conditions in Oakland. The result was his first documentary, 1966’s “Losing Just the Same.”
A frequent commentator on radio and television in later years, Landau was also a professor emeritus at California State Polytechnic U. Pomona, where he taught history and digital media.
Landau is survived by his wife, Rebecca Switzer; a son and four daughters; and a sister.
A memorial is scheduled for Oct. 12 at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, where Landau had worked for many years, and son Greg Landau said Tuesday that arrangements for a public memorial in the San Francisco Bay Area are pending.