Somehow The Agronomist fell through the cultural cracks, but it’s worthy of mention along with Demme’s other great nonfiction work.
Jonathan Demme fell in love with Haiti through art. His recounting of the story sounds almost like a pitch for the type of movie that would garner cries of cultural appropriation from the Twittersphere. His passion for Haiti changed his life, but Demme was more than a magnanimous tourist who took from this new country without reciprocation. He became one of Haiti’s great advocates, promoting its art, music, film and culture in his own work and on the world stage.
Haitian history is one of colonial occupation and propped up strong men. Becoming one of its champions meant an education in the recklessness of US foreign policy. Demme first visited Haiti in 1987 after the fall of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, a prop of the Reagan administration, where human rights abusers were welcome as long as they were anti-Communist. The fever for democracy overtook the people, and Demme wanted to record the excitement for a documentary called Haiti Dreams of Democracy. Though our history of free and fair elections is bloody and imperfect, the idea of democracy is taken for granted by most Americans and Demme was no exception. To watch the fervor of the Haitian people on the cusp of self-governance was intoxicating. It was at this time the director met Jean Dominique, reluctant journalist, gleeful raconteur and director of Radio Haiti-Inter, and his wife, journalist Michèle Montas.
Dominique radiates at the frequency of a star. Diminutive and impish, Demme was taken by his charm and wit, thinking the journalist might be an undiscovered actor that could cultivated and mined for some future project. But Dominique was the voice of Haiti’s people, both in the cities and, more importantly, on the farms and fields where they listened to him speak his commentaries in Creole and not the French of the elites. He had survived the dictatorships and was about to usher in a new era for his country, his life the embodiment of Haiti’s struggles for democracy and deserved a documentary of its own. The elections would provide a happy ending. The ballots were cast, but a military coup forced the new president to flee. Dominique and Montas escaped to Manhattan, where the bulk of the interviews for the film that would become The Agronomist were shot from 1991 to 1994.
The documentary is very clearly constructed as a hero’s journey. It opens on the bullet ridden façade of Radio Haiti-Inter, the nation’s first independent radio station. The broadcast on the day of the coup plays over close-ups of the bullet holes, and Dominique’s voice mocks soldiers while the audience hears the gunfire. The film cuts to Demme interviewing Dominique, who explains that he never wanted to be a journalist. By education, he was an agronomist, a cultivator of land. With a broad, knowing smile, he is well aware that he cultivated a land and its people with ideas and information. Those seeds were well planted.
Before his rise to fame, Dominique’s life was a study in thwarting oppression. For seven years he worked as an agronomist, and in that time advocated for land reform. This action got him fired, but he seemed to lack the spinelessness required to roll over in the face of injustice. Later, he started a cinema club in Port-au-Prince only to have it censored and closed by “Papa Doc” Duvalier, the first of the Duvalier dictators. Finally, he made his way to Radio Haiti-Inter, first for two years as a freelancer, then as director after the owners sold him the station.
When the regime eased restrictions on speech in an attempt to curry favor with the Carter administration, Dominique began to confront injustice and corruption over the airwaves, tapping into a growing fury among impoverished people who watched the Duvaliers and their friends live lavishly. When Reagan came into power, there were attempts at censorship and arrests, but Dominique would not be quieted.
Outlasting the Duvaliers, Dominique saw the election of the Aristide government, and when he was forced into exile in 1991, he continued to work for democratic reform at home. All the while Demme portrays him as energetic, joyous and hopeful. In 1994, Dominique was part of the negotiations between the leaders of the coup and the international community, and was instrumental in getting Aristide returned to power. Returning to Haiti to rebuild Radio Haiti-Inter, thousands waited to greet him at the airport.
The documentary should have ended with Jean Dominique being carried on the shoulders of his countrymen. Unfortunately, that is not the end of the story. Aristide and his successors proved as corrupt as their predecessors, and Dominique continued to speak out until a bullet silenced him on April 3, 2000 in front of the Radio Haiti-Inter building. It is a jarring moment in the film; even viewers who know Dominique’s fate may hope the film gives him a chance to escape, just like in all those movies about heroes that can’t be stopped. But the last time we see him he is laying in an open casket.
Demme’s love for his subject is evident in every frame of the film. We see only the best of Dominique while he fights for the causes of democracy and freedom. It is the story about a man inspiring a nation. But it is also a film about the fragility of those causes. Democratic reform in Haiti inspired Demme so greatly that he felt established democracies like our own could learn something from the passion and earnestness of a people about to create their own government. In doing so, Demme made the movie we need now. Both Dominique and Demme are gone, but they left behind a testament to resistance. It’s nearly impossible to believe that you can bend powerful forces with your voice and ideas, but that is the lesson here.
Somehow The Agronomist fell through the cultural cracks, but it’s worthy of mention along with Demme’s other great nonfiction work. This is his profound eulogy to a man who deserves to be remembered for his passion and celebrated as one of the great troublemakers of our times.