WASHINGTON – Saul Landau, an 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 Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet, died Sept. 9 at his home in Alameda, California. He was 77.
The cause was bladder cancer, said his daughter, Valerie Landau.
Part scholar, part journalist and part activist, Landau made more than 30 films and collaborated on over 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,” Landau said 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 splash came in 1968 with the documentary “Fidel,” which followed Castro on a weeklong journey through the Cuban countryside. Apart from any ideological message, 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. The New York Times film critic Vincent Canby called the film “in all technical aspects, first-rate” and “a remarkable document of contemporary history.”
Landau also made documentaries about Iraq, Syria, Angola and Jamaica, but his most acclaimed film was set in the U.S. “Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang” (1979), which Landau produced with Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler, 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. Landau and his collaborators won an Emmy Award for best documentary and a George F. Polk Award for investigative journalism.
In 1976, two of Landau’s associates at the think tank, Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt, were killed in a car bombing on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington. Letelier was Chile’s ambassador to the U.S. when Allende was ousted and killed during a coup in 1973. Moffitt was his assistant.
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 Landau and Dinges as “brilliant investigators” and described their book as “a polemic against South American Fascists and American acquiescence in their activities.”
Since the late 1960s, Landau’s family said, his provocative films 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.”