Saul Landau dies at 77; leftist writer and documentary filmmaker

Saul Landau was a prolific documentary filmmaker who traveled the world profiling political leaders, including Cuba's Fidel Castro and Chile's Salvador Allende, and used his camera to draw attention to war, poverty and racism.
(Landau family)

Saul Landau, a leftist writer and filmmaker best known for the documentaries “Fidel” and “Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang,” died Monday at his home in Alameda, Calif. He was 77 and had bladder cancer.

His death was confirmed by John Cavanagh, director of the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank where Landau had been a fellow since 1972.

In a prolific career that spanned nearly 50 years, Landau wrote 14 books, directed or produced 10 film or television documentaries, and worked as an investigative journalist. His 1979 political documentary “Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang,” about the coverup 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.

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 for a tour of Cuba and an in-depth interview. The filmmaker turned footage from his time with the Cuban strongman into the PBS documentary “Fidel,” with premieres set for New York and Los Angeles in 1970.

But New York’s Fifth Avenue Cinema was bombed before “Fidel” could be screened, and an office building in Los Angeles that housed leftist groups and was slated to show the picture was burned down before it 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.

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


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

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

Besides his children Julia, Greg, Valerie, Carmen and Marie, Landau is survived by his wife, Rebecca Switzer, as well as seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

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.


He studied U.S. history there, obtaining an undergraduate degree in 1957 and a master’s 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. Around that time, Landau began traveling to Cuba, 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 President Salvador Allende. Landau became friends with Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier, who was imprisoned after Augusto Pinochet overthrew the Allende government.

Landau and 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.

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

Landau, who from 1999 to 2006 taught a variety of subjects at Cal 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 volume of poetry, “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 there, will be completed by filmmaker Jon Alpert, co-director of the film.

“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.”