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‘Fidel’ filmmaker Saul Landau dies at 77

Saul Landau, a writer and filmmaker best known for documentaries “Fidel” and “Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang,” died Monday. He was 77.

In a prolific career that spanned nearly 50 years, Landau wrote 14 books, directed or produced 10 film and television documentaries, and worked as an investigative journalist. His 1968 PBS documentary “Fidel,” which offered an up-close view of the Cuban strongman, is infamous for prompting the firebombing of a New York theater that was scheduled to premiere it.

Landau’s 1979 political documentary “Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang,” about the cover-up of health hazards associated with atomic bomb testing in Nevada in the 1950s, won the George Polk Award for best documentary in 1979. The filmmaker and his partners -- who included Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler -- also won an Emmy Award for best documentary.

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Landau served as a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, the Washington D.C.-based think tank, from 1972 until his death. He died at his home in Alameda, Calif., after suffering from bladder cancer, said John Cavanagh, director of the institute.

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Cavanagh, who collaborated with Landau on film projects, said his documentaries were meant to be educational, “but with the very explicit intent to mobilize people to work for social justice.”

In 1968, nine years after the Cuban Revolution, Landau was invited by Castro to Cuba for a Jeep tour of the country and an in-depth interview. The filmmaker turned footage from his time with the Cuban leader into “Fidel,” and premieres were set for New York and Los Angeles in 1970.

But New York’s Fifth Avenue Cinema was bombed before “Fidel” could be screened, and Los Angeles’ Haymarket Theatre was burned down before the picture could be shown there.

The filmmaker’s daughter, Julia Landau, said her father was affected by the bombings, which she attributed to an anti-Castro Cuban faction.

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“Throughout his life he felt threatened by zealots like this,” she said. “He was really on the hit list for a while.”

Besides “Fidel,” Landau made five other films about Cuba. The most recent project, “Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand Up?” was released in 2010. Julia Landau collaborated with her father on the project, which focused on anti-Castro militants. Several of Landau’s five children worked with him on various movies over the years.

“It really brought us close together,” Julia Landau said.

Born in New York to Leon Landau and Sadie Frishkov on Jan. 15, 1936, Saul Landau grew up in the Bronx, and went on to attend the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

He studied U.S. history there, obtaining an undergraduate degree in 1957 and a master’s degree in history one year later.

“I came out of Madison with a passion for social justice and the idea that you only get one shot at participating in the history of the world and that you have to make the most of it,” Landau told Madison’s Capital Times in 2006, the year he donated his papers to his alma mater.

He moved to San Francisco in 1961. Landau worked toward a doctorate in political science at Stanford University, but did not complete it, said son Greg Landau in an email.

Around that time, Landau began visiting Cuba. It was a place he’d visit frequently over the years.

“He described it in his later years as a marriage he couldn’t break free from,” Julia Landau said. “He was incredibly supportive of the ideals of the Cuban Revolution and he was also critical of the Cuban government for its censorship.”

Landau also had a deep connection with Chile, making films in the early 1970s about the democratic election of Chilean President Salvador Allende. Landau became friends with Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier, who was imprisoned after Augusto Pinochet overthrew the Allende government.

Landau, along with others, worked to free Letelier, who was later assassinated by agents of Pinochet’s government. Also killed was Ronni Karpen Moffitt, who worked alongside Landau at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Landau, with backing of the Institute for Policy Studies, investigated the killings. In 1995, he published a book about the killings -- “Orlando Letelier: Testimonio y Vindicacion.”

Because Landau had deep ties in Chile, in 1975 he arranged a trip to the country for U.S. congressmen Tom Harkin, Toby Moffett and George Miller, who were looking into human rights violations under the Pinochet regime. Landau and Miller would become close friends.

“He was a wonderful friend and wonderful adviser and a great person to bounce some things off,” said Miller (D-Martinez).

Miller visited with Landau on Sunday, and found the filmmaker was still able to trot out his wry sense of humor.

“I said, ‘Saul, you know, what do you think if we end up going to war in Syria?’ ” Miller recalled. “And he just said, ‘It has been such a long time since we had a war, it may be good.’ ”

Landau, who taught a variety of subjects at California Poly Pomona, had eclectic interests: in addition to filmmaking, he was a member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe in the 1960s and published a poetry book, “My Dad Was Not Hamlet.”

At the time of his death, Landau was working on another documentary about Cuba. The project, about the fight against homophobia in that country, will be completed by filmmaker Jon Alpert, co-director of the movie.

Cavanagh said that the Institute for Policy Studies is raising money so that Alpert can complete the picture. "[Landau] had produced a 10-minute clip and did an enormous amount of filming,” Cavanagh said.

In 2006, Landau donated his papers and films to the University of Wisconsin.

“I think my work holds up with relevance to today,” Landau told the Capital Times. “The headlines in the mainstream media come and go every day, and there is a trivialization of what is happening. So you try to make a movie of what makes people pay attention in larger context that will endure.”

Landau is survived by wife, Rebecca Switzer, his first wife, Nina Serrano, and his five children -- Greg Landau, Valerie Landau, Carmen Landau, Julia Landau and Marie Landau.

He also is survived by seven grandchildren and four great grandchildren.

The Institute for Policy Studies will host a public memorial service for Landau at the Liaison Hotel in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 12.

Follow @DanielNMiller

daniel.miller@latimes.com

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