David Koff obituary
Documentary film-maker and political activist best known for Blacks Britannica and Occupied Palestine
The Oscar-nominated documentary-maker and political activist David Koff, who has died aged 74, was remarkable in that his work made waves on four continents. Best known in Britain for his film Blacks Britannica (1978), which portrayed the UK as a profoundly racist society, he also caused controversy with his trilogy about colonialism and its after-effects in Africa, his documentary Occupied Palestine (1981) – which led to a bomb threat at its premiere – and his more recent exposés of the plight of migrant workers in the US.
A tall, striking, figure with a pony-tail and beard, he was a familiar sight on picket-lines and demonstrations throughout California. Behind the calm and genial manner was a steely resolve. His films, like his politics, were concerned with the underdog, the immigrant or the dispossessed – people who Koff felt did not have a voice.
Born into a Polish-Russian Jewish family in Philadelphia, Koff grew up in Van Nuys, California, where the family moved when he was six. His father, Harry, an insurance agent who started his own company, met his mother, Ida, when she was working in her father's five-and-dime store.
Koff graduated from Stanford University in 1961 and took a master's in political science at Berkeley. While with civil rights activists in a church in Alabama in 1960, he had heard an African exchange student describe life in Africa and Koff, who later described the event as an "epiphany", decided he should go there. He worked as a teacher in Sierra Leone, a volunteer in Ghana, and in publishing in Kenya and Tanzania. In a cramped hotel room in Nairobi, he ghosted the memoirs of self-styled "Field Marshal" John Okello, who led the revolution in Zanzibar in 1964.
With the Tanzanian broadcaster Msindo Mwinyipembe and a photographer colleague, Anthony Howarth, Koff put together a trilogy of films about East Africa called The Black Man's Land (1973). These explored European colonialism in the region, the emergence and suppression of the Mau Mau in Kenya and the career of that country's first post-independence president, Jomo Kenyatta. A young Peter Frampton provided the musical score.
Koff and Mwinyipembe married in 1969 and had two children, both born in London: Kimera, now a commercial pilot and musician, and Clea, a forensic anthropologist, who wrote about her work for the UN in Rwanda, Bosnia and elsewhere in the acclaimed book The Bone Woman.
In 1976, working with Howarth again, Koff made People of the Wind, about the Bakhtiari nomads of Iran. Narrated by James Mason, it was nominated for a best documentary Oscar.
Two years later, having moved to London, Koff made Blacks Britannica, which was commissioned by the Boston TV station WGBH, although, to Koff's dismay, that station cut it because it was deemed too overtly political. The film used rare archive footage, interviews and music from Steel Pulse to portray Britain as a society that was oppressive to black people. It created controversy on the both sides of the Atlantic and was attacked by one US TV executive as having a "Marxist agenda".
His film Occupied Palestine, cataloguing the effect of Israeli settlements on Palestinian villages, created an even greater storm. "Like the films in Africa, it was an effort to give a voice to those people who rarely, if ever, are presented on film," said Koff last year, in advance of it opening, the Palestinian film festival in London. A bomb threat to the cinema where it premiered in San Francisco delayed its opening, and as a result other cinemas were reluctant to screen it. The following year he, Msindo, who worked on many of his films, and their children moved to Mogadishu intending to make a documentary about Somalia, which was never completed. He and Msindo parted in 2005 but remained friends.
Back in America at the age of 50, Koff applied successfully for a job as a research analyst and speech writer for the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union, campaigning on behalf of its mainly Latino workforce. He became immersed in union work and was involved in the 2005 Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, which aimed to educate the public about the part that immigrants played in American life. His 2002 film, Windows, with music by Kimera, told the stories of the immigrant workers at the Windows on the World restaurant who died in the 9/11 terror attacks. The New Haven Raids (2007), with a score by Ry Cooder, was about US immigration department arrests in Connecticut of Latinos suspected of being illegal.
With the film-maker Lyn Goldfarb he also formed Organising Video Production, which helped the labour movement to make campaign films. In 2010, he directed Show Us the Tax Breaks, a campaign film about union workers exploited by the car industry, and he was still making short documentaries right up to his death.
Twelve years ago, Koff moved from California to Vermont, where he lived with the writer Crescent Dragonwagon. With her encouragement, he started writing fiction. His novel, Threat, a sci-fi thriller, was published in 2012.
In recent years, Koff struggled with depression and he took his own life. He is survived by Msindo, Kimera and Clea, Crescent and his brother, Robert.
• David Richard Koff, film-maker and campaigner, born 24 September 1939; died 6 March 2014