There are few current screen presences as engaging as the late Haitian activist and free-speech hero Jean Dominique. The subject of Jonathan Demme’s documentary portrait, Dominique is irrepressibly theatrical—a wiry man with an emphatic delivery that underscores his career as a radio man. (His smile is so dazzling you can almost hear it go bling.)
The Agronomist, which is named for Dominique’s original profession but also suggests his social philosophy, has been more assembled than directed. Demme interweaves newsreel footage and interviews he made with Dominique and his wife, Michèle Montas, during their early-’90s New York exile. Husband and wife are cosmopolitan products of Haiti’s Creole elite. Dominique is even a cineaste—he co-directed Haiti’s first indigenous documentaries and his cine club was banned for showing Night and Fog. The disparate styles are held together by the filmmaker’s enthusiasm, his subject’s vitality, and Wyclef Jean’s insinuating score.
The Agronomist is informed less by Haitian history than by the history of U.S. relations with Haiti—going back to the two-decade-long American military occupation that ended while Dominique was a child. Carter’s human rights policy helped Dominique’s Radio Haiti Inter get back on the air; with Reagan, the agronomist notes, “the cowboy was back in the White House . . . it was the end of the Haitian spring.” Baby Doc Duvalier’s tonton macoutes trashed Dominique’s radio station and sent thousands of Haitians heading for Florida (as shown in hellish footage of a capsizing boat). In 1986, the U.S. pulled the plug on Baby Doc, and Dominique returned from exile to a new U.S.-installed military democracy—a subject that Demme addressed 17 years ago in his similarly percolating and radio-obsessed documentary Haiti: Dreams of Democracy. Another Demme doc, Haiti: Killing the Dream, deals with Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s 1991 overthrow.
Dominique, who supported Aristide’s 1990 campaign and his 1994 return, as well as Aristide’s chosen successor, Rene Preval, became increasingly disillusioned with government corruption in the late ’90s, using his radio to promote a peasant left. In the course of the oft delayed, highly irregular 2000 election, the 69-year-old journalist was shot down in front of his station. (The murder remains unsolved—Demme steers clear of any suspicion that elements of Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas party might have been involved or that Dominique was the victim of a campaign against prominent Creoles.)
Amazingly, The Agronomist remains upbeat. The stirring ending has the resolute Montas rebroadcasting one of her husband’s speeches. This affecting eulogy underscores not only Demme’s own tribute to Dominique but also the film’s homage to radio. This is a motion picture that’s in love with the magic of airborne speech—the subject, not coincidentally, of Demme’s long-ago breakthrough Citizen’s Band.