David Koff dies at 74; filmmaker and activist took on L.A.'s Belmont Learning Complex
David Koff, a filmmaker and union activist whose investigation of a campus construction project profoundly changed the Los Angeles school system, has died. He was 74.
He committed suicide March 6 in Hastings, N.Y., his family said.
Koff was the indefatigable researcher who, in the 1990s, took on the Belmont Learning Complex, turning it into a symbol of civic dysfunction as it became the nation’s most expensive high school.
Outside Los Angeles, Koff was best known as a talented documentary filmmaker who took uncompromising stands.
His films include “The Black Man’s Land Trilogy” (1973), a study of colonialism, nationalism and revolution in Africa; the Academy Award-nominated “People of the Wind” (1976), which followed the nomadic Bakhtiari people of Iran; and “Blacks Britannica” (1978), an assertive depiction of racism in Britain.
His film “Occupied Palestine” (1981) broke ground with its portrayal of Palestinian grievances. A bomb threat disrupted its premiere in San Francisco; two public television stations refused to air it. The film has enjoyed a recent resurgence, becoming a favorite at Palestinian film festivals.
Over time, Koff’s politics made it harder for him to fund his films. By the late 1980s, he had lived all over the world and was seeking stability for his family when he responded to a help-wanted ad in The Nation, said his wife, Msindo Mwinyipembe.
It was for a researching job in Los Angeles with Local 11 of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Union.
Koff proved relentless, even ruthless after a fashion. His 1992 film “City on the Edge” portrayed L.A. as a dangerous place for visitors because of ill-treated, low-wage workers. It helped pressure hotel owners to raise wages, said union activists.
“He made films that became events, that became organizing tools, that brought media attention to causes and underserved people,” said documentary filmmaker Lyn Goldfarb, who worked with Koff on projects documenting L.A.'s labor movement.
For another project, Koff took a critical look at the Kajima Corp., major shareholder of the non-union New Otani Hotel in Little Tokyo.
Koff attacked on all fronts, including Kajima’s use of forced labor in World War II. The idea was to pressure Kajima’s various commercial interests until the corporation allowed hotel workers to organize.
The researcher soon focused on the Belmont Learning Complex, of which Kajima was the lead developer. The school was to relieve overcrowding with an enormous new campus and raise revenue through a connected shopping center.
FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of a caption on the photo accompanying this article said a film by Koff turned the Belmont Learning Complex into a symbol of dysfunction; he did not make a film about the school.
Koff’s digging — often in collaboration with journalists — resulted in a stream of revelations: Conflicts of interest had tarnished the bidding process; the gloomy prospects of the retail development were ignored; the deal included long-term, highly paid jobs for members of the development team. And potential environmental risks at the site, an old oil field, never were fully investigated.
The narrative unfolded by Koff — arrow straight with bushy eyebrows and a gray ponytail — had become the narrative of the project.
The campaign against the New Otani management was, narrowly speaking, a standoff. Although the union never was able to organize the hotel, Kajima unloaded the property.
By the time the Belmont headlines subsided, a new school board had swept into office, in 1999; L.A. Unified had fired its superintendent; the district had installed a professional development team and created an inspector general; and new environmental laws had taken effect. The project was shelved in 2000, leaving the half-finished structure looming over the 110 Freeway downtown for several years.
“He was an inspector general before there was an inspector general,” said former school board member David Tokofsky. “So many changes never would have occurred without his persistence, intelligence and willingness to learn in pursuit of his mission.”
A later superintendent, Roy Romer, finished the environmental review and completed the school — an effort Koff criticized.
Koff took on other projects for the union. One involved footage of union workers, including non-citizens, in a restaurant atop the World Trade Center in New York City. When those workers died in the 2001 terrorist attacks, Koff made the film “Windows” (2002) to tell their story and, as always, make broader statements.
“The film can be used to make real change,” Koff said. “This film was made specifically because the union knows that it has a responsibility to make changes in immigration law.”
Born in Philadelphia on Sept. 24, 1939, Koff moved with his parents to California as a young child, growing up in Van Nuys as a top student and athlete. He became an activist in college, where he studied political science, graduating from Stanford in 1961 and earning a master’s from UC Berkeley in 1966. His father, a successful insurance broker, was an early backer of his son’s films.
Koff’s first marriage in the early 1960s was to Margaret Henry, a college classmate who remained a friend. In 1969, Koff married Mwinyipembe, a Tanzanian journalist who became a collaborator on many films.
About 10 years ago, Koff moved to Putney, Vt., and lived with the writer Crescent Dragonwagon, who survives him along with his wife, son Kimera, daughter Clea and brother Robert.
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