The life and death of Jean Dominique, like the history of his native Haiti, is a twisting and complicated tale. It is a tale of revolution and exile, of art and destruction. It is a story about the power of language, language that can liberate a people and words that can get your head blown off. It is about governments and prisons and riots in the streets. It’s about a love that lasts a lifetime, and about hatred that can seethe for generations. It is a tale of friendship and betrayal, of hopes dashed and hopes reclaimed. It is a story that can be hard to follow yet is imbued throughout with the simple values of a folk ballad. Like I said, it is a twisting and complicated tale and one which director Jonathan Demme captures with all the vibrancy and immediacy of a “breaking news” alert.
Haiti shares an island with the much more peaceful Dominican Republic. Its continuing problems and state of unrest have affected more than one American administration.
The Agronomist is a documentary that races through decades of Haitian history and strife. It is told primarily through the wildly expressive and animated monologues of Jean Dominique, a radio “personality” who was assassinated at his radio station in Haiti in 2000. Why was Dominque assassinated? Who was the assassin? After listening to Dominique and his wife speak of the problems in their native land, it is not an easy question to answer. The man made many loyal friends through his lifetime. He also made enemies. He was forced into exile twice, spending many years in New York City, until it was “safe” for his return. The dictator duo of “Papa Doc” and “Baby Doc” Duvalier were constant threats as Jean started his radio programs back in the 1960s. Even the reform government that was later formed under the recently overthrown Jean-Bertrand Aristide had problems with Dominique. The bullets that felled Jean Dominique could have come from anywhere.
Dominique, who studied plant genetics in Paris, was a man of the land. After returning from France, his education in agronomy had him working with the peasants of Haiti. This put him squarely in a position to see the terrible repercussions of life under a dictatorship. His skills as an agronomist could not be fully appreciated in a country that was so poor, where the farmers were so ill-treated. He became a filmmaker, undermining the government with images showing the strength of common men and women and the strong, native spirit still stirring in them. Then he got a radio gig, later buying the station itself. From this pulpit, he shared with Haiti his eloquent and rousing diatribes against the totalitarian rule under which they all lived. Imprisoned, shot at, thrown out of his own country, Dominique bravely (or insanely, depending on your perspective) kept at it. After hearing and seeing how the government works in Haiti, you’ll be amazed that they didn’t get him sooner.
The Agronomist, despite its complicated and sometimes frustrating structure, is a fascinating look at an incredibly brave man. A man tried to save a country with his words, and paid the ultimate price for doing so.
In English and French with subtitles. Opens Friday at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-263-2111.
Dan DeMaggio writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.