David Koff
David Koff

WESTMINSTER WEST -- David Koff, a filmmaker and social activist who lived in Westminster West and who traveled the world, filming documentaries that gave voice to those who struggled to be heard, has died.

Koff suffered from depression and committed suicide on March 6 in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., his wife Crescent Dragonwagon, said.

He was 74.

His 1976 film, "People of the Wind," which told the stories of the Bakhtiari nomads in Iran was nominated for a best documentary Oscar.

In 1981 he released "Occupied Palestine," a film that addressed the effects Israeli settlements had on Palestinian villages.

There was a bomb threat at the theater when the film opened in San Francisco and the film came under intense scrutiny and criticism. Public television stations around the country refused to show it when it was released to television in 1986.

The documentary received renewed recognition when it was shown at the London Palestine Film Festival in 2013.

Koff's most controversial film was perhaps "Blacks Britannica," a 1978 documentary that cast a harsh light on racism in the U.K. The Boston public television station WGBH commissioned the film and then cut it because it was deemed too controversial.

The film was banned in the U.K. for a number of years.

Koff moved to Westminster West in 2004.

He continued making film and was active in Westminster, where he hosted local film festivals at the Westminster West Public Library.

Dragonwagon said Koff suffered from depression most of his adult life and he went through times of temporary relief which were ultimately beat back by times when the disease overwhelmed him.

"Depression is a disease, just like cancer, and it slowly eats away at you until it overcomes you," Dragonwagon said. "David did not kill himself because he did not love life, or because he did not love me. He killed himself because the pain inside him was too great and he could not bear another minute of it."

About 10 years ago Alan Dater and Lisa Merton were working on a film on Kenyan environmental activist Wangari Maathai when the two Marlboro filmmakers came upon footage shot in Kenya by another filmmaker who turned out to be Koff.

Merton sent Koff an e-mail message to Los Angeles asking if she and Dater could use the footage. Koff agreed, adding in his message that he was planning to move to southeastern Vermont himself the following month.

Dater, Merton and Koff remained friends over the next 10 years.

"He was a very principled filmmaker. It's difficult to really present the truth when you have to go through organized media. The organized media is not really used to dealing with that kind of raw truth," Dater said. "Some people thought he was biased, but I don't think he was biased. He was telling the story of the underdog and the oppressed. He was interested in telling the stories of people whose lives are being interrupted by people in power, and people in power generally don't like to hear about that."

But Koff did not only choose human rights and social justice issues that occurred in other nations for his films.

In the 1990s he helped uncover corruption and financial mismanagement during the planning for a new high school outside of Los Angeles.

He did work for and wrote about labor unions in Los Angeles, and in 2007 he released "The New Haven Raids," a film with music by Ry Cooder which told the story of a series of raids by U.S. Immigration Department on Latinos in Connecticut.

Marlboro filmmaker Andy Reichsman worked with Koff on a number of projects, documenting the plight of low wage hotel workers in Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles and the challenges of being an immigrant in America in the 21st century.

As a filmmaker Reichsman said Koff committed himself both to the process and to the cause that he was working on at the time.

Reichsman said Koff was a humble man who never really bragged about his long career, or about the decades of films and social causes he championed.

"He was a really hard worker. He took on so many big issues and faced up to some really strong adversaries," Reichsman said. "I guess he kept his disease a secret from most people. It was a total shock that he would take his own life."

"He accomplished so much and affected so many people with his work, but when you are depressed you can't see that," Dragonwagon said. "For most of his life he fought for the oppressed and for people for whom no one else would speak up for."

"Occupied Palestine," was shown at the 2013 Boston Palestine Film Festival and it had its first New York screening earlier this year when it was shown at The Upper West Side Churches Palestine Film Festival in February.

Koff was there to talk about his film.

Dragonwagon said Koff did not want other people knowing about his depression.

He remained active in the community and produced work, but over the past few years he had an increasingly difficult time overcoming the disease.

Koff had an appointment to see a specialist this week to try a new treatment for his depression.

"People who do not suffer clinical depression cannot understand the horrendous internal pain that people who suffer from the disease go though," Dragonwagon said. "A part of me feared this and a part of me never believed it could happen. My hope is that now he is no longer in pain. My hope is that he is no longer suffering."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or hwtisman@reformer.com. Follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.