Writer-director Jonathan Demme first visited Haiti in 1986 and reportedly fell in love with the nation. He felt intoxicated by the country's art, music, and its people - in whom he witnessed great passion and fervor, and a yearning for political freedom. The close identification that Demme experienced with the Haitians informed two superb documentaries: Haiti Dreams of Democracy (1988), on the national struggle for liberation as exhibited through song, and The Agronomist (2004) - a beautifully wrought and compelling biographical portait of Radio Haiti journalist Jean Léopold Dominique (1930-2000).
For The Agronomist, Demme filmed countless interviews with Jean and his wife Michelle from 1991 through 2000. Production spanned many phases in the lives of the Dominiques that included harassment and death threats by the Duvalier regime, forced exile in New York, and a return to Haiti under the leadership of Aristide. Ultimately, circumstances brought the couple face-to-face with Aristide's dispiriting capacity for corruption and sellout. And not long after a tense and unfruitful radio interview that Dominique conducted with the former president, the broadcaster met an assassin's bullet in the parking lot of Radio Haiti.
In the film, Demme shows us how Jean essentially provided a voice for the Haitian people in their native Creole, despite mounting federal opposition. We learn that Dominique functioned as a beacon of truth, who regularly countered the fallacies churned out by the fascistic Haitian government and its American allies. Jean's point was a fundamental one: like the muckraking journalist I.F. "Izzy" Stone, he constantly reminded his listeners that all governments are mendacious, and that the media - in his case, the radio microphone - should act as a weapon. Radio played that role for him, and also functioned as his art form. When he cut a perpetual swath through the brainwash of the Duvalier regime, he essentially exercised Deb Eisenberg's maxim: "art is the opposite of propaganda - it ventures into distant ambiguities, it dismantles the received information in your brain and expands and refines what you can experience."
Demme must have sensed, at an early stage, that Jean Dominique would be a mesmerizing character to place at the center of a documentary, and his instincts were dead on target. The documentarian shows us how Jean used his entire persona - not simply his broadcasts - as one giant revolutionary act. His life was a 70-year performance piece, intended to rouse the Haitian working classes to action. Fittingly, then, he comes across as intense, histrionic and passionate during interviews. There is a magnificent, telling moment early in the film where Jean describes how the Haitian military turned its guns on the station, in 1991. As Jean revels in the irony that he broadcast the sound of the gunshots to thousands of listeners and thereby countered propaganda that the troops were attempting to enforce with their rifles, he flashes an impish smile at his own cleverness and throws his hands up in the air playfully. In this and other similar moments, Demme shows us how Dominique thrived on the theatricality of provocation, to such an extent that he would likely have found it difficult to live without drama. While Jean's adult daughter J.J. tells us that in his private life (off-air) he was emotionally inexpressive, the broadcasts elicited an opposite quality: he sprang to life on the air, energized and electrified by the microphone. We quickly deduce that Dominique was born to serve as an on-air catalyst, a live wire, in this beleaguered time and place. Michelle at one point likens her husband to Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods, and that simile feels apt.
Demme's portrait of Dominique echoes other truth-speakers who were cruelly silenced: Dr. King and Mahatma Gandhi. There is a fascination, a wonder, inherent in the notion that extraordinary men occasionally rise up to help turn the tide of history, and this film meditates on that truth and pays homage to it. Demme finds a visual apotheosis in the sight of a young boy holding a rope that he uses to pull an occupied toy trolley through the mud. It is doubtful that the filmmaker could have identifid a more potent metaphor for what Dominique accomplished via his remarkable relationship with the Haitian populace.
Demme's approach throughout the documentary feels - on several levels - ingeniously calculated. One of his techniques involves withholding any mention of Dominique's assassination until the concluding fifteen or twenty minutes, which fosters tighter bonds between the audience and the subject and sustains an undercurrent of hope. He also intuitively structures the material in tandem with both the trajectory of Dominique's life and the shifting currents of Haitian sociopolitical history, to introduce and build on a fascinating theme: how the individual and social spheres can perpetually intersect and shape one another over the course of a lifetime. The lives of both Jean and Michelle epitomized this concept, shaped and guided as they were by external political movements such as the U.S. counterculture; in turn, we learn that they culled inspiration from other revolutions around the world, and began to share that fervor with their radio listeners. It's an incisive, chain reaction theory of history and political activism, that has rarely been ushered in with the grace and delicacy on display here.
A significant part of this film's power also arises from Demme's willingness to let us connect the lines between the pieces of information that he hands us. For instance: we may conclude that Jean and Michelle's respective backgrounds shaped them perfectly for one another (on emotional and spiritual levels) and laid the groundwork not only for a dynamic marriage, but one guided by shared political conviction. But appropriately, Demme never states this forthright, and this is only one of dozens of examples.
In a film abundant with overwhelming sequences, two in particular stand out as indelible and feel intrinsically connected to one another. In the first, we see the Tontons (Baby Doc Duvalier's police) marching in formation, indistinguishable from one another, emotionally mute, mechanistic. The effect is chilling, like watching an archival film of the Hitler Youth. And in another, Demme splices together footage of the Haitian people thriving in the countryside - a sequence primal, vibrant and raw. Observing the striking contrast between these scenes, we suddenly begin to realize that the Haitian agricultural workers must struggle to retain an essence of humanity - a soul and spirit - that their vile leaders desperately want to quelch. By driving home insights such as these, the documentary gradually begins to transcend the specific details of Dominique's life and death. Therefore, when a key funeral scene arrives - thousands of saddened Haitian peasants gather in the Artibonite valley in the wake of Dominique's death, many wearing sweatshirts with the broadcaster's likeness on them - we grasp the solidarity that unites them, and the documentary suddenly seems to be less about Jean Dominique himself than the principles and language of revolution that he embodied. That scene - and the film as a whole - sing an anthem to universal resistance against all forms of political and social oppression, regardless of racial or cultural backdrop. The depth and breadth of the conviction as it manifests onscreen would make its martyred subject unspeakably proud.