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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
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.
Haitian agronomist turned civil rights activist with a perilous base, a
radio station lost several times to violence, Jean Dominique paid the
ultimate price for his unwavering dedication to the ideals of democracy,
free speech and an open and uncensored press. He was shot dead outside his
radio station, Radio Haiti, by persons still unknown but it wasn't a
robbery. It was a final attempt to silence a man revered by countless
thousands of his fellow Haitians, especially the poor and
Director Jonathan Demme provides much interview footage of Dominique in this ninety-minute documentary. His American-educated widow, Michele, (Homecoming Queen at the University of Maine, participant in the Vietnam-era Columbia riots) was also his partner in the radio station which she now runs.
Dominique was born into a comfortable family which in Haiti meant they either worked with the corrupt administration of the day or didn't oppose it. His father inspired nationalistic feelings in the young man who went off to France, as many well-off Haitians did and do, to study. In the interviews, his words are frequently punctuated with a sardonic laugh undoubtedly cultivated in the cafes of Paris.
Dominique never gave quarter to "Papa Doc" Duvalier, his idiot son and successor or to Aristide and the military junta that alternated with the now again deposed priest/president.
Articulate and fascinating, Dominique had to know he was in mortal peril virtually every day other than the two brief exile periods in New York (where he and Michele wed). Although he both found sanctuary in America and disliked U.S. foreign policy, especially after Reagan succeeded Carter, his ideological values reflect the best ideals of this country. American involvement with and in Haiti do not.
Interspersed with the interviews of Dominique and Michele are scenes of near anarchy and brutal violence in the incredibly poor country as well as shots of rituals reflecting the nativist tradition of a largely neglected rural class.
I would have passed this film by but for the recommendation of a colleague who used to travel to Haiti decades ago. I'm grateful to him for an eye-opening and deeply disturbing peek into a cauldron whose temperature continues above the social and political boiling point.
At the end of the film Michele is seen broadcasting from the station reporting that her murdered husband is alive and still campaigning for the values for which he died. It's not tongue-in-cheek, it's a moving legacy to a man who states in the film that democratic ideals of freedom can't be killed. He was right but he certainly could be and he paid the price for his lifelong heroism.
One of the most important films of this era. A life lived with complete integrity and service to his community of the people of Haiti with passion and great courage. Everyone should see this movie and show it to their children as they enter adolescence. Dominigue is a model of courage whose life stood for something greater than his own personal agrandizement. He saw the greatness of each human spirit and brought that forward no matter the cost. Jonathan Demme had to know that Dominique's life was constantly in danger as he made the film and the film was made with the passion that Dominique himself would have sanctioned and in fact must have done so or the film could not have been made. I will own a copy of the DVD when it comes out to show to the young people I work with in the schools in the poorest areas of this New York City.
This is one of the most inspiring documentaries I've ever seen. Jean
Dominique's unparalleled quest for freedom really made my day and
deepened my enormous respect for such idealists. His trademark smile
was an invitation to join his struggle. His gestures, his talk, his
manner, show an honest and strong man, who could not be bent. Only
bullets could (and did) stop him.
Another extremely touching aspect of his story is the level of bonding they had with his wife. It is such a rarity and such a wonderful thing to happen, that you cannot but feel happy that these two people have met and enjoyed their life together.
As a documentary, it is flawlessly shot. The timing is right, each episode's duration is well calculated, it flows smoothly and it respects its material.
He gave voice to the masses at a point in history when silence was the status quo and personified integrity where corruption has been the norm for so long. I did not know him personally, but I am one of so many touched by his courage and saddened by his untimely departure from this earth. This documentary is a must see masterpiece that depicts Jean Do for what he really was: "a true Haitian Hero and a giant among men". It is cinematographic poetry from the mind of a genius about a man of a rare specimen that nature produces a few of. When taking into account the current situation in the island, one cannot help wondering whether Jean Dominique was the last of an endangered specie. Death is not a defeat but a guarantee to immortality to the righteous.
The Agronomist, a documentary film by Johnathon Demme, director of Silence
of the Lambs and Philadelphia, was made over the course of a decade in
Demme's free time about the Haitian radio journalist. When Dominique was
killed, this movie became about a martyr story for the people. Demme does a
decent job with the confusing tale, but his documentary style might border
on boring if it weren't for the astounding presence of Dominique himself. He
is a wildly eccentric man, and very funny to watch, especially with his
large white teeth and folding face. But you know while you're watching him
that he's also very serious. This is at the same time a political movie and
the study of an endlessly interesting man. It is a movie that sides with the
Democratic, but to call it a Liberal movie is unfair, since the Democratic
interests in Haiti are on a much different scale than those of America.
Their interests were freedom, every day life. To them, Clinton was a chance
for freedom and democracy, and I respect that. There are wonderful sequences
such as when they talk about his love of film and agriculture. He was "an
agronomist without any land." This is a moving picture that offers a lot of
insight into the Haitian culture, and lets us see it through the eyes of
this wonderful little man.
My grade: 8/10
I spent quite a bit of time in Haiti when I was a child in the late sixties until the last time I went down there when I was in my early 20's, just after Baby Doc left the country. The memories are a combination of the most magical place on earth and the most tragic. I think many people who had contact with Haiti would say the same. The Agronomist is the story of a true Haitian hero and the ultimate price he paid for his passion to inform and enlighten the forgotten masses of people by running the only Creole radio station on the island. The tragedy is so many other well intention Haitians have paid the same price from a series of brutal dictators, who like usual have been supported and backed by other countries like the US and France (where you can see photos of Baby Doc on the ski slopes, while Jean-Bertrand Aristide got dropped in the middle of the Congo by our Compassionate Conservative idiots) The truth of the movie lies in fact then whenever there is a glimpse of hope some external events end up crushing it again and again. The film reminded me of my departed father, who had the guts to bring his family down to a magical place where its beauty is rivaled by its poverty. As a child I played in the streets with all the other children and blew any change I had on soda and chewing gum we would all share. You don't get that experience at Disneyland, thanks dad.
Jean Dominique might have been just another impressionable and
hard-working radio personality/journalist in Haiti had it not been for
the fact that the country was, and more than likely still is, caught in
the quagmire of political unrest and violence always in the air.
Because of repression, of military coups, of democracy becoming like
something of an inside joke in countries outside of Haiti (the US
saying they would give aid on one hand while on the other the CIA
making sure the military dictators stood in reign), Dominique had no
choice as a voice of reason for some semblance of order to reach the
people. Free speech is a big theme running throughout The Agonomist,
probably the most politically charged film Jonathan Demme has ever made
(and second only to Philadelphia, for its time period, as being the
most timely), as the independently run Haiti radio station becomes like
a battered wife, sustaining lots of bullet-holes on its exterior,
occasionally with some of its workers being thrown in jail or the
equipment being destroyed, depending on who's suddenly taken control of
So that's one side that makes the film compelling, is the whole facet of the power of some voice reaching the people, of ideas being stirred by more than just simplistic entertainment as opposed to the run-of-the-mill tactics of the Haitian government(s) at their worst, which is to keep them shut out and afraid. You can tell the bitterness through Dominique's dark sarcasm interviewed while in quasi-exile in the early 90s. But there's another side to Dominique's saga that makes him such an important figure, and such a worthy subject for Demme, which is that before free speech can even really be seen as something permanent there has to be stability, some real sense of hope, that there can be trust in those in power to not be like rough-and-tough Stalinists and give the people a real say. One sees however, and this is what adds to its timeliness given the state of Iraq, is the fragility of democracy in a country where power by militaristic means is the easy route. Aristide is, for quite a few years, seen as a figure-head of peace and leadership, and one of the key struggles was his reinstatement in the country as the president.
But then one sees little by little the cracks showing (there's a great scene with an audio interview with Dominique asking tough questions to Aristide), corruption within the folds of the government, and soon enough it starts all over again- with harsher results for Dominique, who continued to stand up against just as sinister (if not more insidious) a threat than militaristic dominance: corporations. Demme's approach to telling this story is important because he keeps Dominique as such a smart, amusing but critical force in his interview segments that the storytelling has to come back around to him, as someone who is an outsider to the social unrest but embedded in giving some spirit through his speech. In a sense it's a very bleak film, where there is no answer given to what will come of the Haitian people, the peasants who have tried to flee the country, or are beaten down or killed, or who sometimes do revolt, and there's still no way to know if there can be democracy.
Yet it is positive- and thanks to Wyclef Jean's surprising score energetic- about the possibilities of charging up a national consciousness; without Dominique and radio Haiti when it was on it is questionable whether or not it would've made a difference as far as historical changes to the infrastructure, yet there was a presence, some kind of critic ala philosophers in Greece who could say 'hold on, what the hell is going on?' It's absorbing documentary film-making all the way.
In my search for a movie to review in my Latin American class, I came
across "The Agronomist" at my local video store. Not knowing much about
Latin America in general, I was not aware of what went on in Haiti -
then, and even now. This was such a powerful film portraying Jean
Dominique, the Haitian journalist who spoke out against successive
dictatorships on Radio Haiti. I feel he resembles how Martin Luther
King, in the way he spoke to become the "voice of the people" and his
unending passion to pursue freedom, opportunity and human rights for
the Haitian peasantry.
I recall one part of the film that caught my attention. The foreign soldiers scene discussing "The Battle of Vertieres" that occurred on November 18, 1803. Composed of escaped Haitian slaves form the Haitian Revolutionary Army,demolish Napoleon's Colonial Forces. Here, Jean Dominique's father tells him when he's just a young boy seeing soldiers pass his house, "You are from this land, you are not French, you are not British, you are not American. You are Haitian!" I feel Dominique's passion to fight for human rights from the elite were rooted in him by his father.
Dominique stood for the values of open inquiry, justice and freedom. The documentary provides the world with the insight of this fearless man who wanted to do good in the world. I hope someday his assassins are found and justice is served.
First of all, I thank Mr. Demme for making a film about this
extraordinary man. Jean Dominique, needless to say, is someone to
admire and learn from. He reminds me of José F. Peña Gómez, a Dominican
of Haitian descent, who also took to the airwaves (circa 1965) and
became an exemplary patriot.
In response to a comment about why the Dominican Republic has relatively stood idle throughout Haiti's ongoing strife, it should be noted that DR sadly has its own ills to tend as well. The island of Hispaniola it's one with two different nations, cultures and languages, a notorious legacy of the tug-of-war between former colonial powers. But like Haiti, it is another victim of many of the same demons that to various degrees afflict much of Latin America.
I must admit with much shame that even as a Dominican, only during my residence here in the far-flung region of New York rather than back home in Santo Domingo have I befriended fellow Haitians and came to know more about their culture. Learning about a Haitian luminary such as Mr. Dominique has thus been a treasure.
It saddens me deeply how most media outlets to date do scant coverage about what's happening in Haiti and elsewhere with little mention, if any at all, about the feats of Jean Dominique and how his assassins have yet been brought to justice. These and many more reasons make The Agronomist a must-see documentary. In this ever more jaded, cynical world, it's inspiring and much of a solace to find people like Jean Dominique amidst the disheartening and overbearing blanket of corruption and complacency.
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