DENNIS SCHWARTZ Movie Reviews

 
AGRONOMIST, THE (director/writer: Jonathan Demme; cinematographer: Aboudja/Jonathan Demme/Bevin McNamara/Peter Saraf; editors: Lizzie Gelber/Bevin McNamara; music: Wyclef Jean; cast: Jean Dominique, Michele Montas; Runtime: 90; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Jonathan Demme/Bevin McNamara/Peter Saraf; THINKFilm; 2003-Haiti/USA)

"John Demme is the right filmmaker for assembling the truth about the subject-matter of Haitian freedom and Jean Dominique is the right subject for a film inspiring hope in Haiti."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Jonathan Demme's ("The Silence of the Lambs"/"Swimming to Cambodia"/"Citizen's Band") social-justice documentary is an elegant tribute to Jean Dominique, a martyred voice for free speech in Haiti who was 69-years-old when fatally gunned down by two men in front of his radio station on April 3, 2000. Demme has made several documentaries about Haiti since his visit there in the 1980s ("Haiti: Dreams of Democracy"/"Haiti: Killing the Dream"), always pointing out the difficult struggle for democracy. The filmmaker for The Agronomist conducted twenty interviews with the animated Dominique between 1991 and his death, and includes in the narrative interviews with his loving journalist wife Michele Montas who also worked at his Radio Haiti radio station after receiving a college education at Maine and Columbia University in the 1960s. Demme also blends interesting newsreel footage into the film such as the Haitian uprisings and the radio station functioning as the voice for land reform. Through Dominique's relevant story we learn a valuable lesson in Haitian history, especially of the last 50 years. 

Dominique's a wiry, charismatic, outspoken, warmly smiling, pipe smoking Haitian from an elite Creole family, who studied in his native country and later in Paris to be an agronomist—geneticist-and-plant breeding scientist. In Paris, he discovered the French New Wave films and became filled with a love for films that fit his ideas of revolutionary politics as a way to reach the people of Haiti (80% of whom are illiterate). Upon returning to his homeland, Dominique established the first movie club to show foreign films and was the first to bring filmmaking to Haiti. His cinema club was banned after it showed Alain Resnais' controversial anti-fascist Night and Fog. But Dominique didn't make his mark on Haiti's people until he became the voice of freedom on radio. It was in the early 1970s that he was offered a chance to be a radio-station owner and personality, and seized the moment. Until that time Haitian radio was just for entertainment, but he introduced a radio format that provided information and spoke in Kreyól (Creole)--the native language of most of the population, but despite that the previous radio shows remained in French.

There were a series of political and personal victories and setbacks, including the Reagan years in exile in Manhattan (America no longer supported the cause of human rights like it did under President Carter). Dominique was in exile again in the 1990s in New York after the fall of Aristide, but Dominique remained hopeful that the truth would be told and that the spirit of democracy would take root in Haiti. He never lost his magnetic personal drive or his conviction to help bring about a democracy in Haiti. 

The Agronomist explores a complex, confusing political situation that involves dealing with ruthless dictators like "Papa Doc" and "Baby Doc" Duvalier (his tonton macoutes destroyed Dominique's radio station, terrorized the peasant population and sent thousands of frightened Haitians as boat people to Florida). Baby Doc was removed in 1986 by a coup led by the generals-forming the CNG who continued to oppress the people. The CNG was removed a short time later in 1986 by the outcry for democracy, which resulted in the election of Aristide--someone Dominique supported. But his promising government soon turned corrupt which led to an eventual coup, and by the late 1990s Dominique was disillusioned with him. The conflicted support of the United States (President Clinton sent in American troops to restore Aristide's presidency, while the CIA worked to support the dictatorship) allowed for a series of missed opportunities to foster and nourish a real democracy.

It's quite apparent why Demme has such a high regard for Dominique, who is intensely honest, passionate and a ball of energy for the cause. Through his inspirational story, life work, haunting visions and vaunted hopes for his downtrodden people, Dominique's human spirit and resiliency lives on among the Haitians. The film does not go into details about the unsolved crime, but Aristide supporters and a terrorist group targeting the Creole elite are suspects in the ongoing investigation.

It seems that all we have to know about this surprisingly cheerful elegiac documentary, is that John Demme is the right filmmaker for assembling the truth about the subject-matter of Haitian freedom and Jean Dominique is the right subject for a film inspiring hope in Haiti. 

REVIEWED ON 5/24/2004        GRADE: A

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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