“People ask me what does Haiti have to show for 200 years of independence,” says Michèle Montas. “I say, ‘Survival.'” Montas should know. She and her husband, Jean Dominique, ran Radio Haiti Inter for 30 years until he was assassinated in April 2000. Jonathan Demme’s documentary The Agronomist tells their story, along with Haiti’s history since the days of “Papa Doc” Duvalier.
Few American journalists ever have the privilege of knowing that we contribute to change for our fellow citizens. Dominique helped create a major shift in Haitian political consciousness with two decisions: to air news and to broadcast it in Creole. In a country where illiteracy is the rule and all but a small elite speaks Creole, airing what was going on in the world was revolutionary.
Demme (who’s currently working on a remake of The Manchurian Candidate) met Dominique on a 1986 trip to Haiti. “I became obsessed with the country, the people, the architecture, the art, everything,” he says. “It was within the year that Baby Doc had split, and almost exactly a year before elections were supposed to happen. It was this place where democracy is coming and the people were so excited. It was palpable.” Demme returned a few months later to shoot Haiti: Dreams of Democracy, and found “many roads led to Radio Haiti.”
Demme became fascinated with the charismatic journalist who started out as an agronomist. “When he was pushing [in his last years] to have the farmers participate in the government,” says Demme, “he made a simple point, ‘The big obstacle is that those in power have to achieve a perception of the farmers as human beings.’ ”
Footage was shot over 15 years of this man who, Demme says, was “smart enough to avoid assassination for a long, long time.” Dominique survived both Duvaliers and befriended Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the now exiled president of Haiti. “Aristide would call Jean in the middle of the night to say, ‘I can’t sleep, I’m haunted by this question, what do you think?’ He called him Papa,” says Demme. But the 1991 U.S.-backed coup forced Dominique to flee.
“This film was supposed to have been a portrait of a journalist telling you the history of the country, telling you his life story, updating the progress of the [’91] coup, and the final scene would be him back at his microphone, and the coup was over,” says Demme, “a documentary with a happy ending.” Demme smiles at his wishful thinking. After Aristide’s U.S.-assisted return, things got worse. “We did leave too soon, we didn’t disarm the opposition,” Demme says. “We did give [the coup leaders] safe haven, and we didn’t do any nation-building—that’s not a dirty word as far as I’m concerned.”
At the end of Aristide’s rocky first term, Dominique invited him on the radio, hoping Aristide would “come clean about the deals he had to make in Washington, the deals he had to make with the oligarchy to be embraced as a leader, and the business deals he had to make,” says Demme. “Aristide came back with all these homilies and Dominique realized he had changed irrevocably.”
After Dominique’s death, Montas continued to broadcast until 2003, when her bodyguard was murdered during an attempt on her life. But she plans to return. “When we do reopen, we will be on the justice agenda,” says Montas. “Right now, the first priority is security. But in Haiti, security is linked to impunity: The former Duvalierists are there, the people who were in the coups in 1991 and 1994 are there, others are killing and maiming people. Plus, the prisons have been emptied. There are people of good will who want to at least bring a level of peace to the country. Can elections take place in 2005? It’s gonna take a lot of work.”