09/12/13 - New York Times - Saul Landau, Maker of Films With Leftist Edge, Dies at 77
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
Published: September 11, 2013
Saul Landau, a determinedly leftist documentary filmmaker and writer whose
passion for asking what he called "the most intrusive questions" yielded
penetrating cinematic profiles of leaders like Fidel Castro and Salvador
Allende, died on Monday at his home in Alameda, Calif. He was 77. Enlarge
Institute for Policy Studies, via Associated Press Saul Landau with
Subcommander Marcos of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, in 1995. Mr.
Landau was also a prolific writer. Arts Twitter Logo. Connect With Us on
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List: Critics, Reporters and Editors Arts & Entertainment Guide A sortable
calendar of noteworthy cultural events in the New York region, selected by
Times critics. Go to Event Listings " The cause was bladder cancer, his
daughter Julia Landau said.
Mr. Landau aspired to marshal art and literature to illuminate social and
political problems, and his point of view was almost always apparent. In
the 1980s, he wrote essays berating the administration of Ronald Reagan for
trying to depose the leftist government in Nicaragua, and recently he urged
the United States not to become involved in Syria.
He said he saw no difference between documentary and fictional films. In
both, he said, a director manipulates light and sound to put across a
vision. "One has to simulate reality," he said in 2005 in an interview with
The Capital Times in Madison, Wis. "The other one says, 'Here's reality,'
whether it is or isn't."
Mr. Landau emerged from the roiling New Left politics of the 1960s to make
more than 40 documentaries, including six about Mr. Castro. One of them,
"Fidel," released in 1969, was a rare intimate look at the Cuban leader. It
shows him arguing with a finger-wagging peasant woman, visiting his nursery
school and playing baseball and striking out.
"I found Fidel a sympathetic figure and a hell of a good actor," Mr. Landau
told The Washington Post in 1982.
His most acclaimed film was "Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang," which he
directed with Jack Willis in 1980. With cinematography by Haskell Wexler,
the documentary, broadcast on PBS, told of the cover-up of health hazards
from a 1957 nuclear-bomb test in Utah. The film won an Emmy Award and a
George Polk Award.
The title referred to Mr. Landau's friend Paul Jacobs, a journalist who
died of cancer - believed to have been caused by radiation exposure -
before the film was completed.
Other films by Mr. Landau portray poverty in big-city slums, the
destruction of indigenous Mexican culture, the inner workings of the
C.I.A., torture in Brazil and life inside a San Francisco jail. Most have a
leftist political edge that some saw as propagandistic, but Mr. Landau
characterized the films as educational.
"All my films try to teach people without preaching too hard," he said. "I
try not to be too tendentious."
Mr. Landau released two films relating to Mr. Allende, the Chilean who had
become Latin America's first democratically elected socialist president the
year before. One was an interview with Mr. Allende.
The other film, "Que Hacer!" (1970) - the title is a translation of the
title of Lenin's book "What Is to Be Done?" - is a fictional movie, a
playful spy story with music concerning a C.I.A. case officer in Chile.
There are two casts: a Chilean one directed by Raul Ruiz and an American
one directed by Mr. Landau and Nina Serrano, his wife at the time. Country
Joe McDonald performed and produced the music. The film won awards at film
festivals in Cannes, Venice and Mannheim, Germany.
Orlando Letelier, Chile's ambassador to the United States, invited Mr.
Landau to screen it at the Chilean Embassy in Washington, and they became
friends. A few years later, Gen. Augusto Pinochet overthrew the Allende
government and imprisoned Mr. Letelier.
Mr. Landau worked with other international supporters to win Mr. Letelier's
release and to arrange a job for him at the Institute for Policy Studies, a
left-wing research organization in Washington Mr. Landau had joined in
1972. In 1976, Pinochet agents used a car bomb to kill Mr. Letelier and
another institute worker. In 1980, Mr. Landau and John Dinges published a
book about the case, "Assassination on Embassy Row," documenting the
Pinochet government's ties to the killings.
Mr. Landau was at least as prolific a writer as he was a filmmaker. He
wrote 14 books and thousands of newspaper and magazine articles and
Saul Irwin Landau was born on Jan. 15, 1936, a few blocks from Yankee
Stadium in the Bronx, and grew up playing stickball in the streets. His
father was a pharmacist who had fled pogroms in Ukraine to come to New York
in 1920. His mother was a teacher.
As a youth, Mr. Landau once abandoned school to hitchhike across America.
When he returned, his mother urged him to take the test for the
academically elite Stuyvesant High School. He passed, and went on to
perform brilliantly there. Arts Twitter Logo. Connect With Us on Twitter
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calendar of noteworthy cultural events in the New York region, selected by
Times critics. Go to Event Listings " The summer after he graduated, he
met Ms. Serrano at a camp in the Catskills, where he was the fry cook and
she the drama teacher. Ms. Serrano, who became a published poet, encouraged
his interest in leftist politics and a bohemian lifestyle, according to
their daughter Valerie Landau.
Ms. Serrano also accompanied Mr. Landau when he went to the University of
Wisconsin. When a dean found out that they were living together, he
threatened to expel Mr. Landau (Ms. Serrano was not a student then) if they
did not marry. They did.
At Wisconsin, Mr. Landau got involved in a so-called Joe Must Go club,
which advocated the recall of Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin over his
demagogic attacks on people he accused of being Communists.
After earning bachelor's and master's degrees in history at Wisconsin, Mr.
Landau became a researcher for C. Wright Mills, the sociologist, traveling
with him to Western Europe, the Soviet Union and Cuba.
Moving to Northern California with Ms. Serrano, he worked toward a
doctorate at Stanford but did not complete the studies. In San Francisco,
they gravitated to the Beat poets and the emerging New Left movement. Mr.
Landau joined Students for a Democratic Society and helped organize the
leftist magazines Ramparts and Mother Jones.
He also joined the San Francisco Mime Troupe, for which he wrote a parody
of a minstrel show, "A Minstrel Show, or Civil Rights in a Cracker Barrel."
Performers in the show, which satirized racial perceptions, appeared in
blackface. The show traveled to New York and elsewhere.
"Through the entire evening there is really nothing to laugh at, no matter
how funny it is," Richard F. Shepard wrote in The New York Times. "There is
the ominous theme of what hypocrisy and oppression breed."
In 1966 Mr. Landau got a job as a reporter at KQED-TV, San Francisco's
public television station, and a year later went to Cuba to make a news
documentary. Mr. Castro liked it, and invited Mr. Landau to return to do an
in-depth documentary about him. Mr. Landau's marriage to Ms. Serrano ended
in divorce. Besides his daughters Valerie and Julia, he is survived by a
son, Greg, and two other daughters, Carmen and Marie; his second wife,
Rebecca Switzer; seven grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
"You want to do what you can while you're on this earth," Mr. Landau said
in 2006. "Otherwise the alternative is to go shopping."
A version of this article appears in print on September 12, 2013, on page
B19 of the New York edition with the headline: Saul Landau, 77, Maker of
Films With Leftist Edge, Dies.
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