The Agronomist spurs action

May 11, 2004, midnight | By Erica Hartmann | 20 years, 1 month ago

For those who no longer believe in political heroes, meet Jean Dominique: agronomist, defender of Haitian peasants, radio journalism pioneer and activist extraordinaire.

Born in 1930, Dominique did not take up the call of activism until after studying agronomy in France and spending a few years in his native fields of rural Haiti. At first, his medium of choice was film, and he started a movement for Haitians to make their own films about life in Haiti. After the oppressive military government shut down that operation, Dominique moved on to radio. His broadcasts made him the target of many violent police attacks and caused him to spend many years in exile during the 80s and 90s. Although a democratic government was at one point set up, it only lasted temporarily, and Dominique was assassinated in April of 2000 after that government was overthrown.

The Agronomist is a documentary by Jonathan Demme (Academy Award-winning director of Silence of the Lambs) made in celebration of Dominique's life and work. True to the form of documentary, Demme sequences interviews with Dominique's sisters talking about his childhood, discussions with Dominique and his wife Michèle Montas about their political and personal lives and narrated montages which give a brief history of Haiti.

Unlike other cut-and-dry documentaries, the Agronomist has style. Interviews are edited to stress words and ideas artistically; clips of Dominique on several different occasions sniffing the air wildly--"smelling the enemy"--are fused together; sound effects and music are used to heighten tension (Yes! Tension in a documentary!).

The score is composed by Wyclef Jean. When it's there, it's used magnificently to cause emotions to swell. There is, oddly, a large chunk of the film toward the beginning where there is too little music, making the film awkward there.

Music or none, the focus on Dominique is never lost. He is portrayed as an intensely expressive, resilient man with a passion for truth. His whole mission was to expose Haiti to truth in journalism, to provide unbiased news reports of events around the world, to enrich even the illiterate farmers and thus bring them power. Though his background was in agronomy, Dominique founded and maintained Radio Haiti, Haiti's only news radio station, and thus inspired the people to revolt by telling them about similar situations in other countries.

He met Montas after she returned from studying in the United States. She brought a background in journalism (from the University of Maine and then Columbia University) and radicalism to the project, becoming one of Radio Haiti's first broadcast journalists.

Dominique and Montas' combination of honesty and amicability made them a fabulous team to carry on such a valiant fight and keep up a support base even while they were forced into exile in New York. Dominique especially had a great sense of humor; when Ronald Reagan became president and U.S. backing of human rights was withdrawn from Haiti, Dominique's reaction was, "The cowboys are back in the house!"

Dominique's goals of truth in media and citizens in power are still unrealized today, especially in Haiti. The Agronomist is not only a striking tribute to the efforts of a great man but also a powerful call to action for others to continue working on his mission.

The Agronomist is in English, French and Creole with English subtitles. It runs 90 minutes and is rated PG-13 for some violent images and brief nudity. It is only playing at the E Street Cinema.

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