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Speaking Out 

In another review space, Jonathan Demme is lauded for his shrewd remake of The Manchurian Candidate, this time using a political thriller as a commentary not on the ironies of the Cold War but the creeping shadow of globalization. It's heartening that Demme, after all these years, somehow finds a way to inject commentary into his fairly commercial career. It's a delicate high-wire act, keeping it real and commercially viable at the same time.

In The Agronomist, Demme drops all pretense in his examination of the life of Jean Dominique, a tireless activist for the people of Haiti who was ultimately gunned down by his rivals in 2000. As the pioneer behind Radio Haiti, Dominique, fearless and defiant, spoke his mind and the mind of Haiti's forgotten middle and lower classes. Demme could be forgiven for feeling just a little bit envious.

In this 2003 documentary, which screens next Monday at the Prytania courtesy of the New Orleans Film Festival, Demme offers a bare bones look at Dominique's life, set against the backdrop of Haiti's history. One of many Caribbean stories of poverty and corruption, it's a particularly pathetic and sad one, realizing the United States' devastating effect on this island nation. For example, Demme notes, when Jimmy Carter was president of the United States, he developed a foreign policy that rewarded countries for supporting human rights. It would help provide the foundation for Radio Haiti's most prosperous years, as the government sought to show its new-found tolerance. Ronald Reagan campaigned with a foreign policy that didn't use human rights as a standard. Within weeks of Reagan's defeat of Carter in November 1980, the Tonton Macoute -- Jean-Paul "Baby Doc" Duvalier's private militia -- riddled the station with bullets, arrested staff members and killed one of them. Dominique and his wife, Michele Montas, escaped to New York City in what feels like an endless series of mini-exiles.

He would return, of course, defiant as ever, speaking out against government corruption and for the peasant farmers whose crops were often confiscated. And it is Dominique's defiance that becomes its own character in Demme's rather bare-bones film. Dominique's eloquence flows throughout. "I am not a journalist," he insists early on to an interviewer, "I became a journalist." In another more prophetic statement, on the air, he virtually sings, "You cannot kill the truth. You cannot kill justice. You cannot kill what we are fighting for: participation of the citizens to the community business. You cannot kill that."

Dominique's charisma seems boundless. His eyes are wild and darting, his teeth in a permanent clench, arms gesturing, jaw jutting. Demme benefits from reams of interview footage. (Full disclosure: Not having seen Demme's previous work, 1987's Haiti: Dreams of Democracy, I'm not sure how much is repeated here.) But as the film rolls along, dutifully chronicling the interrelationship between Dominique and his country, there still remains a certain lack of context and even detail. We know what happened in Haiti, but Dominique's interviews fail to convey his specific ideology. For example, we know that he started out as an agronomist, hoping to improve a potentially vibrant Haitian agriculture that produced cocoa, coffee, rice and more, but we don't know exactly how or why he was blacklisted by the business community. It's a pivotal moment in his life that is left hanging.

But his relentless nature propels the film's narrative, through his battles with the Duvalier regime and his support for priest and Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide that included a coup led by Gen. Raoul Cedras. (It should be noted that Cedras and two of his henchmen received their training at none other than the controversial U.S. Army's School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Ga.) Dominique's relationship with Aristide soured amid accusations by Dominique of corruption and patronage.

Speaking of Louisiana, New Orleanians should feel right at home with this story of a people with such a strong connection to our area. One of Dominique's greatest achievements was broadcasting in Creole (or Kreyol). An aspiring filmmaker in the 1960s, he influenced poet/screenwriter Rassoul Labuchin to pen the first Creole-language film, I Can't Shut Up. He also broadcast reports on the native practice of vodun, which the Catholic aristocracy shunned.

Dominique's clashes with Aristide eventually did him in. There is much evidence to suggest that one of Aristide's allies, Dany Toussaint, was instrumental in Dominique's assassination along with a co-worker as the two began their day at the station in 2000. There is an almost symbolic moment at the end of Dominique's funeral in which friends and family sit on the bridge of a river, pouring his ashes out onto the water from a gourd. The ashes keep pouring out, endless, defiant. Later, his wife returns to the air, proclaiming in poetic fashion that Dominique is not dead; it's just a rumor. His spirit lives on. Without a proper coda, we're not quite sure if he is. But, as with much of this film, we get the general idea.

click to enlarge Jean Dominique, upon his return from exile in the United States. "You cannot kill justice," proclaimed the late Dominique, the subject of Jonathan Demme's documentary The Agronomist.
  • Jean Dominique, upon his return from exile in the United States. "You cannot kill justice," proclaimed the late Dominique, the subject of Jonathan Demme's documentary The Agronomist.
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