Saul Landau; filmmaker gave inside view of Cuba

Saul Landau traveled the world profiling political leaders like Cuba's Fidel Castro and Chile's Salvador Allende.
Associated Press/File 2010
Saul Landau traveled the world profiling political leaders like Cuba's Fidel Castro and Chile's Salvador Allende.

WASHINGTON — Saul Landau, an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker whose work gave an unprecedented glimpse into Fidel Castro’s Cuba and examined lingering health problems from nuclear fallout in the American West, died of bladder cancer Monday at his home in Alameda, Calif. He was 77.

Part scholar, part journalist, and part activist, Mr. Landau made more than 30 films and collaborated on more than a dozen books, most with an unabashed left-of-center point of view. His films also offered inside views of Chile under Marxist leader Salvador Allende and Mexico during guerrilla uprisings in the 1990s.

‘‘I think I’m objective, but I’m not detached,’’ Mr. 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 filmmaking splash came in 1968 with his documentary ‘‘Fidel,’’ which followed Castro on a weeklong journey through the Cuban countryside. Apart from any ideological message, Mr. Landau made skillful use of lighting, landscape, and music to give viewers a vivid impression of what was then a little-known culture.

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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. New York Times film critic Vincent Canby called the film first-rate in all technical aspects and a remarkable document of contemporary history.

Mr. Landau made documentaries about Iraq, Syria, Angola, and Jamaica, but his most acclaimed film was set in the United States. ‘‘Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang’’ (1979), which Mr. Landau made with Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler, examined the US government’s attempts to suppress information about the harmful effects of nuclear radiation from open-air explosions in the 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. Mr. Landau and his collaborators won an Emmy Award for best documentary and a George F. Polk Award for investigative journalism.

‘‘It had a big impact on slowing the spread of and eventually stopping the construction of nuclear power plants,’’ said John Cavanagh, director of the Institute for Policy Studies, a liberal think tank where Mr. Landau was a board member. ‘‘He illuminated dozens of important issues for justice and the environment and peace for the United States and overseas.’’