Its easy to understand how filmmaker Jonathan Demme (Stop Making Sense, The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia) was captivated by the theatrical buoyancy of Jean Dominique, one of Haitis most prominent human-rights fighters and that bedeviled countrys most combative radio journalist. Though Dominique slim, wiry, a pipe stuck in his mouth cuts a somewhat unprepossessing figure, his emotive-verging-on-manic personality easily fills a screen, even when recorded on shaky video. Demme met and began to film Dominique in exile, in the late 1980s, and continued shooting footage with the Haitian crusader over the years. The result is a 90-minute homage to the man and his cause that also serves, unfortunately, as an epitaph to his martyrdom, and to that of his nation.
Indeed, Dominiques life almost perfectly conflates with Haitis modern history. He was born in 1930, when U.S. Marines were still occupying the island, so his nationalist indignation took shape early. After studying in France, he returned home as a young agronomist and, incidentally, as the committed cinephile who opened Haitis first film club, only to see it shuttered after a few years later by the dictatorship of Papa Doc Duvalier.
By the mid-1960s, Dominique had purchased Radio Haiti Inter and turned the station into a bold voice of opposition. Risky business, he called it. Jailings and beatings followed and eventually led to his 1980 exile in New York City. When the Duvalier regime collapsed seven years later, Dominique returned to Port-au-Prince and was met at the airport by 60,000 cheering supporters. By 1990, when the radical priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide had been elected president by a two-thirds majority, Dominique had reason to believe that his dreams of Haitian democracy and freedom were at last being realized. That reverie came crashing down within a year: A right-wing military coup unseated Aristide and once again thrust Dominique into exile. In 1995, when Aristide was restored to power by the peaceful invasion of U.S. troops dispatched by Bill Clinton, the always-ebullient journalist reopened his radio station.
An ardent supporter of the social revolution promised by Aristide, Dominique became disillusioned when the new regime began more and more to resemble the old one. In April 2000, after a public squabble with one of Aristides security chiefs, Jean Dominique, age 70, and an assistant were gunned down on the steps of Radio Haiti Inter.
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In The Agronomist, Demme reconstructs this extraordinary life, deftly mixing stock news footage with his own interviews with Dominique, and with the journalists courageous wife, sisters, daughter and co-workers. And although the film may be about 20 percent overweight, the human story of a man who for four decades spat in the eye of his tormentors and gleefully accepted his role as a latter-day Sisyphus commands the viewers attention.
Demmes chronicle concludes with Dominiques wife, Michele Montas, reopening the station yet again, a month after her husbands funeral. Ending The Agronomist here saves the audience further pain. Twenty months after Dominiques murder, the news director of another Haitian radio station was hacked to pieces by a machete-wielding gang. Soon after this, a third station burned to the ground. Montas bodyguard was murdered in late 2002, and she once more fled the country. Earlier this year, an odd coalition of street thugs, former military officers and disaffected grassroots groups squeezed Aristide out of power. If Dominique were alive today, hed be amazed, no doubt, to find his people are right back where they were at the time of his birth with U.S. Marines guarding an unelected government.
The Agronomist is clearly a labor of love for Demme, whose big-budget remake of The Manchurian Candidate transposed from the Korean to the Gulf War opens this summer. I cant imagine anyone in Hollywood urging him to use what was essentially his home video to craft a full-length project on such an obscure and earnest subject. Hes to be doubly congratulated, then, and not least for his persistence in producing a valuable and deeply haunting portrait of a social activist who lived and died for the highest ideals.
THE AGRONOMIST | Directed by JONATHAN DEMME Produced by DEMME, BEVIN McNAMARA and PETER SARAF Released by ThinkFilm Inc. | At Sunset 5, Santa Monica 4-Plex, UA Marketplace (Pasadena)