Jonathan Demme has devoted more attention to Haiti than any other American filmmaker has given a beleaguered Third World nation. After producing four documentaries on the Caribbean country, Demme makes his most extensive statement as director of “The Agronomist,” a moving portrait of the late Haitian radio personality who campaigned for democracy, Jean Dominique. Pic melds a great cause and Dominique’s incandescent charisma with care using research from nine years of filming and reporting. Venice and Toronto preems will kick-start major visibility for Demme’s most politically committed film, with vid and educational markets on the horizon.
Casual observers may think the helmer’s primary interest in Haiti is its music (“The Silence of the Lambs,” for one, ends with a Haitian slant, at least on the soundtrack), but Demme has actually been tracking the country’s tumultuous politics for many years. Dominique is the ideal subject for Demme as he is not only articulate and entertaining but a spokesperson for popular opposition to a string of thuggish regimes, and a symbol of what freedom of the press actually means.
Picking up roughly where “Haiti: Killing the Dream” (which Demme exec-produced) left off with the 1991 overthrow of elected President Jean-Claude Aristide, saga shows Dominique and wife Michele Montas under siege at their radio station, Radio Haiti-Inter , from goon squads involved with the coup.
Pic’s first proper interview with Dominique begins in July 1993 in Gotham, where he and Montas were then in exile. He expresses his characteristic blend of bitter rage and optimism about his homeland’s prospects and dictatorial legacy, before docu takes a pause to provide viewers with extensive background on the coupleand Haitian history.
Dominique and Montas both came from privileged homes, and Dominique’s work in agriculture brought him into direct contact in the 1960s with the feudalistic nature of the island nation’s farming system in which peasants have historically been powerless. His interest in land reform brought him into direct conflict with the “Papa Doc” Duvalier regime, landing him in prison.
Dominique became something of a cinephile while in Parisian exile, and formed a cine-club back home while co-directing “Mais Je Suis Belle,” which teased beauty pageants.
But Dominique’s work as a radio communicator forms the heart of the pic. Purchasing Radio Haiti-Inter and turning it into the country’s only independently operated station flew in the face of what the Duvalier dictatorships of Papa and Baby Doc would typically permit. It’s doubtful that without Montas’ crucial support and partnership Dominique would have made Radio Haiti into the voice of democratic opposition, which gradually tilled the soil for the sprouting of Aristide’s reform movement.
During years of lensing, Demme’s camera was granted open access to the station’s studio, where Dominique and Montas are seen regularly reporting and commenting on various issues. The station becomes symbolic of freedom: After a brief period in which reform seemed possible due to direct pressure from the Carter Administration, the army clamped down and attacked Radio Haiti a month after Reagan’s 1980 election.
Dominique’s story is thus marked by rising and falling fortunes resulting from U.S. involvement. He directly benefits from Aristide’s 1990 electoral triumph, suffers during the coup and then returns to broadcast again when the Clinton Administration forces Aristide’s foes to step down.
Pic is loaded with wonderful talking-heads interviews with the spry, urbane Dominique, who bears a remarkable resemblance to the great French actor Jean-Louis Barrault. Amidst the tension and constant uncertainty of his position, he expresses a joie de vivre and irreverence that’s completely disarming and undermines any polemical harshness. Montas projects a serene strength that seems to be the stuff of decades’ of struggle.
The account of Dominique’s April 2000 assassination is genuinely tragic and moving. Currently, broadcasting at Radio Haiti-Inter has been shut down, with Montas in U.S. exile.
Vid-to-film transfer is decent, given that the early ’90s video segments were shot in that period’s low-end standard. Archival footage and photos form a rich backdrop. As usual with a Demme production, music selections embolden the images.