The Agronomist (Sous-titres français) [Import]
The life of Haitian radio journalist and human rights activist, Jean Dominique, told through historical footage of Haiti; interviews with Dominique and his wife, Michele Montas; and footage shot before his assassination in April 2000.
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A film that took an honest, detailed look at why more was not achieved under democratic rule would have been valuable. It would have prompted people in the US, Canada and France to hold their governments accountable for their destructive role in Haiti today. The US and it allies have blown Aristide's crimes out of proportion to those of his opponents. This tactic has provided them with propaganda cover since 2004 when they returned Haiti's ultra reactionary elite to power.
The film tells us that "The May  elections will prove to be so deeply flawed by voting irregularities, they will haunt the Lavalas government for years to come."
The elections were not deeply flawed. The OAS argued that several senators should not have won their seats in the first round. The OAS did not question the scale of the Lavalas victory. The "flaws" were a pretext for the US and its allies to enforce economic sanctions.
No economic sanctions are in place against the unelected regime that rules Haiti today. It abuses human rights to an extent that dwarfs anything that took place under Lavalas, but is completely backed by the "international community". A better film would have put us in a better position understand why that is so, and to put a stop to it.
The film stitches together interviews Demme did with Jean Dominique over several years. Even from that grainy footage, it is apparent how charismatic Dominique was. His excitement is infectious; when he opens wide his eyes and smiles, we can't help but smile with him. At various stages, he talks about the "risky business" of operating a free radio station in a dictatorship, and we're inspired to undertake our own risky business in search of freedom. What's particularly impressive (and appealing) about Dominique is his indefatigable optimism. But when he talks about the CIA's role in his country, we're reminded of why giving that institution too much power (even in this age of terrorism) might not be such a good thing. His invitation to join his struggle along with his honesty and strength 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.Read more ›
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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.
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."
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.