Filmmaker, union activist, provocateur – David Koff wore these and other appellations with pride and grace during his 74 years, and left behind many friends and colleagues when he died in March. The first three decades of his professional life were spent as a globe-trotting, Oscar-nominated documentarian who chronicled everything from the legacy of colonialism in Africa to Great Britain’s pervasive anti-black discrimination.
He began a second career as a researcher and filmmaker for UNITE HERE Local 11, and it was during that part of his life, following L.A.’s 1992 civil unrest, that Koff and a small band of activists conceived the idea for what became the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE). A few years later, his obsessive yet meticulous research exposed the corrosive role of the Kajima Corporation in promoting its construction of the woefully mismanaged Belmont Learning Center near downtown L.A. Koff’s leading role in the take-down of Kajima and its white elephant high school-cum-shopping mall is the stuff of legend and set the platinum standard for the investigation of local corporate cronyism.
There was nothing ordinary about David Koff. Yet Koff – the premier documentarian of L.A.’s epic immigrant worker movement of the 1990s and early 2000s – dedicated much of his life to telling the stories of the dispossessed and voiceless, from Southland hotel housekeepers to Africa’s legions of urban poor.
Koff, who died last week at the age of 74, was a striking figure in every respect, from his long ponytail and immaculately groomed white beard to his singular speaking voice and keen intellect. An Oscar-nominated filmmaker in the first part of his career, he became a legendary labor researcher, media strategist and videographer whose work both captured and helped catalyze the remarkable ascent of L.A. hotel workers as major players in the city’s political transformation.
I first met Koff in the late `90s while working on a state investigation into the Belmont Learning Center, a controversial $200 million project that crumbled under the weight of its own colossal mismanagement – and the brilliant PR work of Koff,
I started working at UNITE HERE Local 11 back in 1997. I’ve stayed a part of the labor movement for nearly two decades in no small part because of David Koff, then a researcher with the union, who died last week at age 74.
David was an intellectual and an activist of a kind that’s all too rare these days. He was funny and incredibly smart, and spent the first 30 years of his adult life supporting and making movies about radical international causes.
He took work seriously and was passionate about it, talked too much and made fun of himself. He called our strategy group the Popular Front Organizing Committee and was only half joking. He vowed not to cut his hair till he won a campaign and didn’t. He did construction with a friend of his, doing great work and somehow always alienating everyone by showing up late or not at all.