Saul Landau: Death of a Propagandist

The media eulogize a Castro-loving filmmaker.

saul_landauSaul Landau died Monday at 77, receiving laudatory obituaries in major media outlets like The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post. Landau was an award-winning filmmaker of dozens of documentaries that addressed issues ranging from war and poverty to racism. He was also, in his own words, a propagandist for socialism whose famous 1968 documentary Fidel helped sell Cuba’s monstrous Castro as a benevolent man of the people.

Landau began his political activism as a University of Wisconsin at Madison student by working to recall Sen. Joseph McCarthy. “I wanted to participate, I wanted to make a difference,” he said. After graduation he moved to San Francisco. “I came out of Madison with a passion for social justice,” said Landau, “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.” He tried his hand at everything: film distributor, author, playwright, mime. He wrote for the New Left’s Ramparts magazine and worked for public TV station KQED, where he got his first shot at filmmaking.

Landau began visiting Cuba in 1960 and joined the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, which complained that Castro’s regime was being bullied by the U.S. government and news media. He went on to make six films about Cuba, including 2010’s Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand Up?, the aforementioned Fidel, and 1990’s The Uncompromising Revolution on PBS. Castro’s “beard is grayer,” the latter film noted, “but his charisma remains as strong as ever.” The film praised the murdering Argentinian coward Che Guevara as “a saint.”

New York Times critic Walter Goodman wrote off Landau’s hagiographic piece as a “sycophantic fantasy.” Landau “trails after Castro as he visits with workers, doctors and scientists and looks into a microscope,” wrote Goodman. “Hey, there’s Fidel at a volleyball game. What a guy!” He criticizes Landau’s rosy depiction of Castro’s jails: “Even the prisoners he visits are patriotic; and what a swell prison! You haven't seen so many smiling faces since Social Realism went out of style.”

Landau, lifelong friends with Castro, shrugged off the criticism. “You have 999 anti-Castro films. So why don’t you run one pro-Castro film?” Because Castro was a vile dictator and painting him and his sadistic cohort Guevara as otherwise is a crime against humanity, that’s why. But what can you expect – Landau’s daughter Julia said, “He was incredibly supportive of the ideals of the Cuban Revolution.” Then, perhaps defensively, she also added that he was also “critical of the Cuban government for its censorship.”

The Washington Post’s eulogy whitewashes Landau’s pro-Castro propaganda, sidestepping the issue to praise his “skillful use of lighting, landscape and music” instead. The Post went on to note that “although some dismissed [Fidel] as propaganda”– because it was propaganda – “the film nevertheless offered a view of Castro as a man of the people, chatting with villagers and playing baseball. New York Times film critic Vincent Canby called the film ‘in all technical aspects, first-rate’ and ‘a remarkable document of contemporary history.’” Again with the technical praise.

Landau’s most acclaimed film was “Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang” in 1978, which examined the U.S. government’s attempts to suppress information about the harmful effects of nuclear radiation from open-air explosions in the American West in the 1950s. It garnered Landau and his collaborators an Emmy 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 D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank where Landau was a board member.

Landau served as a fellow there from 1972 until his death. Cavanagh collaborated with Landau on film projects and said the documentaries had “the very explicit intent to mobilize people to work for social justice.”

The anti-Pinochet Landau became friends with Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier. In 1976, after Letelier and his assistant were assassinated in a car bombing, papers were found in his briefcase which showed that Letelier was receiving $1,000 a month from Cuba and hoped to eventually do for Chile what Castro had done for Cuba. Many of these documents were leaked to the press but were virtually ignored. “There seemed to be a feeling by many in the media,” reads an Accuracy in Media report, “that it was inappropriate to expose to public view the evidence that Orlando Letelier was a Cuban agent. It was even suggested that those who sought to reveal this information were trying to condone his assassination.”

Also discovered in the briefcase was a letter from Saul Landau to a friend in Havana, in which Landau wrote,

I think that at age forty the time has come to dedicate myself to narrower pursuits, namely, making propaganda for American socialism… We cannot any longer just help out third world movements and revolutions, although obviously we cannot turn our back on them, but get down to the more difficult job of bringing the message home.

Landau, with the backing of the Institute for Policy Studies, co-authored a book about the killings, and then another about the case called Assassination on Embassy Row, which says nothing about Letelier as a Cuban agent. Landau states that one of his first acts upon hearing of the assassination was to go to Letelier’s office and go through his files “to ensure that materials that could compromise the Chilean resistance inside Chile or in exile would not fall into the hands of the FBI.”

Landau worked all the way up until his death Monday. He collaborated on more than a dozen books, most with what the Post called “an unabashed left-of-center point of view,” and was working on another documentary about Cuba. He also taught literature, film and foreign policy at California State Polytechnic University at Pomona.

“All my films try to teach people without preaching too hard,” Landau told the Post in 1982. “That’s why I make films... to raise people’s consciousness in one way or another.” If by “raise people’s consciousness” he means “sell the world a lie about socialism,” then Saul Landau gave it his all.

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Tags: Cuba, filmmaker