on June 19, 2005
Jonathan Demme's "The Agronomist" is a documentary about Jean Dominique, the Haitian civil rights leader and radio journalist who was gunned down by unknown assassins on April 3, 2000. A passionate believer in a free and open press, Dominique founded Radio Haiti in the early 1960's and became know as the "voice of the people" for over four decades of that nation's turbulent, strife-torn history. Through a succession of coups and counter-coups that seemed to forever rock the country, Dominique remained committed to securing freedom for the citizens of his beloved island nation, even if that meant having to do so as a frequent political exile living in the United States. That his own life ended tragically - as is so often the case when brave individuals step out to try to make the world a better place - is of less importance than that people of goodwill pick up the banner and carry forth his message of social justice and equality for all people. Demme has done just that by putting together this inspiring and thought provoking documentary.
In constructing his film, Demme has chosen to rely primarily on the many interviews Dominique gave over the course of his lifetime. Thus, even though Dominique is dead, we are able to hear his story in his own words, a distinct advantage for those of us who knew little or nothing about the man and what he accomplished prior to our seeing this movie. We learn firsthand of all the dreams and fears, hopes and disappointments that came to define this one individual who truly made a difference in his world. In addition to these interviews, Demme also provides insights from Dominique's supportive wife and family as well as from some of the common folk in Haiti who were inspired by Dominique's vision.
As the movie unfolds, Demme provides us with a well-delineated history of Haiti in the last half century, showing us the political turmoil and human suffering that have, sadly, come to define life in that benighted country. This includes the installation and overthrow of both Duvalier regimes ("Papa Doc" and "Baby Doc"), the election then overthrow of Aristide by the forces of Cedras, then the return to power of Aristide at the hands of an international force led by the United States. The saddest part of the movie comes near the end with the realization that, even with a democratically elected government in place, life has not become appreciably better for the average Haitian, for the violence, suppression and government corruption seem as intense today as at any time in Haiti's past.
Still, despite these many setbacks, Dominique's vision of a world where every person is free to speak his mind without fear continues to flourish in the hearts of men and women everywhere. This film is a tribute to that spirit.
on June 8, 2005
Radio, when used correctly, can get you killed.
It's the most powerful, most personal medium. Nothing else on planet Earth can reach more oppressed people-the poorest, the illiterate and semi-illiterate-with the same information at one time. It explains and reflects issues, events, and people. It provides company as well as context. At its best, its mixture and manipulation of supplied sound nourishes the spirit and offers hope for a better tomorrow and, perhaps, even eventual liberation.
So Jean Leopold Dominique, a member of Haiti's light-skinned mulatto elite, was tuned in to this power. He purchased a radio station. In the 1970s, he turned himself onto the potential of expanding democracy through a free medium. ("Radio, then," says Dominique, "was not a news medium. It was entertainment.") He found freedom through his frequency. He committed class suicide using his (broadcast) voice to rally for peasant power. His reward: a violent death after being twice exiled from his homeland.
Jonathan Demme, the filmmaker behind "The Silence Of The Lambs" and "Philadelphia," was, of course, unaware that Dominique was going to be assassinated in April 2000, outside of Radio Haiti's studios; Demme had begun interviewing Dominique in 1986 for a documentary on the beleaguered island. They hit it off. So, on and off, the duo's filmed talks continued until 1999.
Those interviews form the spine of "The Agronomist," a tribute to Dominique's life, his wife, and Haiti's potential and constant strife. (The title comes from the profession he abandoned once broadcasting took hold.) Dominique's widow, Michele Montas, co-owner of Radio Haiti, assists Demme in telling the story of her husband's powerful existence as a broadcaster and a grassroots political activist.
This film chronicles the constant battle for free speech in a nation of U.S.-supported dictators and, subsequently, democratically elected presidents who allowed others to use dictator tactics on their behalf. ("It's 7 a.m.," Dominique broadcasts one morning in the 1990s. "They try everything-to gnaw at us; to bury us; to electrocute us; to drown us; to drain us; it's been going on for more than 50 years. Is there a reason for it to stop? Yes-one: Things much change in Haiti.") The same politically inspired censorship that Dominique experienced when he formed a film club in the 1960s dogged him throughout his career at Radio Haiti. He said he did two things that caught too many angry, oppositional ears: broadcasting in Kreyol (Creole) and providing "in-for-ma-tion"-political commentary and reporting. "Risky business," Dominique told Demme more than once. Later on in the film, he says directly but not arrogantly: "I know I am attacked because I'm doing my job the way it should be done."
At first glance, Dominique doesn't look like a national hero. Pipe ever prominent, physically slight but not frail, he reminded this reviewer of a kind of mulatto Jacques Cousteau. Then he talks, and the energy in his voice takes over. He animates his words with almost comical expressions and with eyes that, when widened to make a point, look ready to pop out of his head. His pronunciation exposes his values ("coming TO-GETHER, doing things TO-GETHER"). The fact that he wears his heart, Haiti, on his sleeve is as visible as his wide, big-tooth, grin. His literal smelling of trouble is comical.
Some of Haiti's best are among those contributing to the story. Wyclef Jean and Jerry "Wonder" Duplessis expertly handle the score, and Edwidge Danticat, the great author, is one of the film's associate producers.
Victory seems illusionary, particularly viewing "The Agronomist" in the context of today's headlines. Radio Haiti is no more. As of June 2005, the men charged with his murder have either been killed in jail or escaped when Aristide was forced to pack his bags during last year's coup. The killing's masterminds are still unknown, and evidence has been "lost." Surviving an attempt on her life in Haiti after her husband's death, Montas now lives and works in America. Nevertheless, the film ends on a triumphal note. A correct choice, since, according to Jean Dominique: "You cannot kill truth; you cannot kill justice; you cannot kill what we are fighting for."
on January 18, 2007
Jean Dominique contributed a lot to our country's history and its view of the press. Though an obvious ulterior agenda motivated this documentary it nontheless told the story of a very admired and possible leader of Haiti if were ever interested. I just wished it pushed further into rumored "lavalas" involvement in this man's death...maybe that's just not important. It's just sad that only half of this story was told...SEE IT SO YOU CAN JUDGE FOR YOURSELF.
on July 16, 2011
It is easy to see why award winning Jonathan Demme had a fascination with Jean Dominique and the continued saga of the democratic process in Haiti. The repression of the people of Haiti and the suppression of emerging democratic institutions, such as a free press, is both tragic and fascinating. This documentary film has a primary focus on Jean Dominique and his independent radio station but his heroic wife is a major voice of sanity and liberty throughout the film also. Democracy does not spring to life without supporting societal structures to support the democratic process. Public schools and a free press are two such structures necessary for a healthy emerging democratic process. Jean Dominique and his wife were heroes in establishing and defending the free press, primarily their radio station, in Haiti, which in many instances was the only voice of opposition to dictatorship. The film is composed of many interviews, taken at different points in time, and interspersed with historic documentation of riots and political footage. Some of the film takes place in Haiti and some takes place in New York when Dominique and his wife were in exile. Dominique recognized the terrific risks he took every day and he seemed to wish to live a full life so that he would have no regrets when he met this end. He is a fascinating man, full of the humor or irony and absurdity, telling of repression with a twisted smile on his face as if he were a modern Voltaire or Hobbes or Kafka. He is as realistic as Hobbes, as ironic as Voltaire, and has appreciation for the absurd like Kafka. Yet he is also a true patriot, a man who deeply loves his country and the people. His assassination outside the radio station in 2000 is almost a foregone conclusion and the viewer of this film senses that Dominique knew this end would come to him. The film certainly highlights the obvious corruption and evil of the regimes of Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier but to its credit it also explores the complex political dynamics and chaos of the Aristide regime.
The title is based on Dominique's background as an agricultural consultant but the title has a double meaning for it can also refer to the efforts of Dominique to grow democracy in his native land. Like many successful reformers before him, he comes from the upper class but is capable of empathy with the common people, which energizes his mission. The radio station was his medium by which he spread concepts of democracy and by doing so; he became a hero of the people. The film is excellent, not for wonderful cinematography or beautiful actresses, but rather for its obvious ability to tell the truth about repression and the spirit required to resist that repression.
on February 19, 2013
You haven't seen this documentary yet? Why not? You absolutely must buy this today and watch it. It will inspire you to fight for what you believe in. This documentary of the last years of the life of Jean Dominique and the equality and democracy which he fought for will make you want to go to Haiti to remind people there of what they can accomplish if they set their mind to it.
on January 24, 2007
"The truth," recalls Jean Dominique (1930-2000) quoting Shakespeare, "will always make the devil's face blush." For forty years Dominique was Haiti's most eloquent and outspoken political and human rights activist. Whether it was Papa Doc Duvalier, his son Baby Doc, Raoul Cedras, Jean Bertrand Aristide, Preval, the provisional puppet governments supported by America and run by the military, or the hated Macoutes thug-militia, Dominique spoke unvarnished truth and justice to power. He gave voice to the poorest of the poor in general and peasants in particular. When he was assassinated April 3, 2000 at the age of 70, he requested that his wife and the peasants together pour his ashes into the river. By training Dominique was an agronomist, but he became a national hero by force of his unflinching bravery, charming eloquence, and political passion. Late in the documentary he describes himself as always having had "an unquenchable faith as a militant for true change." With his journalist wife Michele Montas, he owned and operated Haiti's oldest and only free radio station, Radio Haiti, despite repeated episodes of harassment, torture, jail, and over six years of exile in Manhattan. Broadcasts were in native Creole rather than colonial French, connecting Dominique viscerally to the millions of powerless peasants. In addition, he produced Haiti's first film in Haiti by a Haitian, sensing that when you watch closely, you understand how a film becomes a political act. In 1965, Papa Doc's authorities permanently closed Haiti's first film club that he had started. Written and directed by Academy Award winner Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs), who interviewed Dominique over a period of ten years, this documentary demonstrates how some times human history is driven from "the bottom up" rather than the "top down." In English and Creole (with English subtitles).
on December 30, 2005
From Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs, The Manchurian Candidate remake) comes this documentary about Jean Dominique, a Haitian radio journalist and human rights activist who, from 1960 to his assassination in 2000, spoke out against the violence and dictatorships in Haiti, often resulting in his exile.
The documentary spends a lot of time on Dominique's face, which usually might be a bit tedious except that Jean Dominique himself has quite an expressive and engaging face. When he talks, his smiles, glances, and movements are really very absorbing, and the man was a very interesting and wise person. It's almost odd to imagine someone like him arising out of the ashes of such a tumultuous country as Haiti.
Haiti itself strikes an interesting character, being as it were one rife with violence and turmoil. This documentary analyzes the forty years Dominique experienced from behind a microphone and shows not only the personal tension, but the geopolitical issues (let's just say this movie isn't very nice to people like Presidents Reagan and Clinton).
The first part of the movie itself is most important because it spends time showing the absolute need for media in order to maintain human rights. It's difficult to watch because it shows how much we take our media for granted and how shortsighted our media really are. While we bother our comfortable heads with issues of "objectively" representing "everyone's needs", some people are struggling to make sure their voice is heard and getting killed over it. Maybe it's a good thing we have nothing really to talk about, because it shows we're not in these people's situations.
Anyways, a very powerful and inspiring documentary indeed, and one that's pretty well done despite the poor video quality. The background music and the focus on Jean Dominique's face make it very comfortable and friendly even as he's helping to reveal the issues he had to deal with. It's very good.
Though, I know of filmmaker Jonathan Demme (known best for THE CRYING GAME, among other films), I have never seen any of the films from his extensive body of work. What's more, I knew even less of Haiti. It was time that I receive an education, I felt, and what better way to do this than through viewing an intense and engrossing film like THE AGRONOMIST, one of the most beautifully crafted documentaries I have seen in a very long time.
The film's title is in reference to Hatian radio journalist Jean Dominique (1930-2000), a great, charismatic and controversial part of Haitian mass media and history for the forty years he was on the air, with RADIO HAITI, his radio station, founded in 1960. For those of you unfamiliar with agronomy, it is a type of agricultural science. Receiving an education as an agronomist as a young man, from a very affluent mulatto family in Haiti, Dominique applied his acquired knowledge of the science of sustainable cultivation to help poor Haitian peasants, with their cash crop. He also felt a calling to start up a film club, produce a Haitian documentary centered on voodoo, and eventually start his work as a very progressive journalist, challenging the corrupt politics of his very violent and turbulent government. Eventually, Dominique was driven into exile, in New York, with his wife.
Jonathan Demme began recording informal interviews with Dominique in 1986, juxtaposing his footage with newsreels documenting political violence in Haiti, as well as interviews with Dominique's wife, other family members and colleagues, leading up to his assasination in April of 2000. His footage is compelling, profound and even (at times) humorous. The very charismatic Jean Dominique was insightful, with a wit that cut like a knife, and interjected his pointed observations with bursts of humor and poetry. What's more, the original musical soundtrack is fabulous. Wyclef Jean and Jerry "Wonder" Duplessis bring great songs to this documentary piece, that add such color and flavor to the story. THE AGRONOMIST is great and I am truly surprised that it didn't get more exposure! I definitely reccomend it.
on October 25, 2005
I am passionate about Haiti and the struggle of the poor every day to feed, clothe, and house themselves. This is a wonderful view of that beautifully spirited country from the eyes of a native and a man who sees it as it is. If you love Haiti, you have to see it - if you don't know anything about Haiti - you have to see it - if you care about the poor everywhere/anywhere you have to see it. Praying for Peace in Haiti.
on February 25, 2007
I enjoyed watching this documentary because it really showed what could be... the elite of Haiti rising up and standing for the rights of ALL Haitians not standing for impunity in the justice system and governmental abuses. Jean Dominque dared to simply stand for HAITI...against corruption on all sides and he paid with his life like so many other Haitian activists. It is a shame to see so many rich and powerful ignoring the plight of the poor in their own country. This documentary shows the story of someone who dared to be different. His impact is living beyond his life thanks to this film and others who carry on his story.
I have been to Haiti twice and am planning my third trip. Your heart is so full to the breaking point when you visit - so many wonderful people full of life and looking for hope. Haiti is so often pushed to the sidelines but hopefully with films such as these more people will be inspired to help in the fight for justice for Haiti.