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The US has Howard Stern, Haiti had Jean Dominique. Each country gets the martyred media hero it deserves. Whereas Stern draws heavy fines for spritzing up his raunchy frat-boy humor with digs at Bush (or so he claims), Dominique had his radio station shot up and shut down, and his reporters were targeted. On April 3, 2000, he was assassinated by the ruthless powers he challenged with his courage, his decency, and his seductive, irrepressible voice.

That voice is the first impression one gets from Jonathan Demme’s heartfelt (he and Dominique had been friends since 1991) and detached, funky and refined documentary. The film opens with a recording of a Dominique broadcast that consists largely of the grunts and growls, hems and haws of the Haitian Creole patois, non-verbal cues conveying a wealth of information to those in the know.

The voice is also mellifluous, seductive, full of pain and irony. Demme doesn’t crack Dominique’s vocal code for the uninitiated, and neither does he clarify the complexities and ambiguities of Haitian politics and history. He just sketches in enough background to Haiti’s 200 years of turmoil, betrayal, and injustice to make the most recent troubles seem even more confusing, the only constant being the venal, ignorant, and pernicious interference of the United States. Demme does, however, bring to life his friend’s sorrow and pity and his whimsical, indomitable defiance of tyranny, making his, and Haiti’s, fate a universal tragedy.

Dominique studied to become an agronomist — hence the film’s title. Since nobody owned land in Haiti except the privileged few, he notes, his profession had no meaning. So he switched from earth to air — with a fascinating ’60s stopover in film as he attempted to make some documentaries and to establish a Haitian film club, projects quickly crushed by the Papa Doc Duvalier regime. In 1968, he took over the old Radio Haiti Inter, and apart from a couple of periods of exile in the United States, he broadcast the truth to his oppressed people for the next 32 years.

Demme had interviewed Dominique over the years, and except for the occasional archival footage (including snippets from a Dominique documentary about a voodoo celebration that looks like a Haitian Woodstock) and interviews with friends and associates and Dominique’s extraordinary wife, Michèle Montas, The Agronomist is a collage of him talking. Like the similarly focused Demme documentaries Stop Making Sense and Swimming to Cambodia, this is pretty much a one-man show.

But Dominique is a hypnotic presence, the rare instrument of his voice backed by the vibrant rhythms of Wyclef Jean’s soundtrack. Demme has been employing Caribbean flavorings and music in his movies at least since 1986’s Something Wild, and by now he knows how to utilize such potent ingredients with subtlety and grace. Although it seemed that Haiti’s 15 minutes of fame ended weeks ago as the Aristide drama faded away before new crises ranging from Michael Jackson to Fallujah, Demme’s film might put a human face, and voice, on that blur of misery. In English, French, and Creole with English subtitles. (90 minutes)

Issue Date: April 30 - May 6, 2004
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