A vibrant voice of Haiti

Jonathan Demme masterpiece `The Agronomist' introduces the world to Jean Dominique, scientist turned activist broadcaster


May 23, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

At the same time that director Jonathan Demme was mounting the milestone anti-yuppie comedy, Something Wild (1986), the hilarious Mafia parody, Married to the Mob (1988), the breakthrough serial-killer thriller The Silence of the Lambs (1991), and the first mainstream-film attack on homophobia in the time of AIDS, Philadelphia (1993), he was slaking his thirst for unspoiled culture and liberation politics by plunging into all things Haitian.

Demme's previous documentaries about Haiti barely made it past the festival circuit. But The Agronomist, the story of an expert in the science of soil management who became a champion of Haiti's peasantry, has crashed into theaters as a masterpiece of personal filmmaking.

This heartfelt, excitingly complex, art-kissed documentary (now playing at the Charles) portrays Demme's late friend Jean Dominique, a Haitian agronomist turned crusading radio broadcaster, as a man who burns with the glory of free expression. What makes the movie emotionally overwhelming is that it filters the exultation and sadness of an entire country through the soul of a national hero. Dominique, a scion of his country's privileged class, dedicated his life to giving voice to people without a voice and thus uplifting his race - the human race.

Grabbing time to speak over the phone from outside his New York editing suite (where he's completing his remake of The Manchurian Candidate, due out July 30), Demme is up-front about his personal motivation for making The Agronomist. The first words out of his mouth are, "Jean Dominique was such a great guy!"

But Dominique's move from agronomy to broadcast journalism also galvanized Demme: "You have to appreciate the visionary nature of his choice to work in radio and create what could be the literature of illiterate people."

The director traces the roots of Dominique's audacity to his father "taking his little boy out of school to accompany him on trips so he can learn about the entire country. On those trips Jean learned not only to appreciate the land but also to love the people and try to make things better for them."

Staying off the soapbox

When The Agronomist depicts the Haitian ruling class' many ways of brutally manipulating farmers, the specifics always fit into sweeping historical forces - freedom and feudal repression wrestling for the fate of a country. Demme says that he and his lead editor, Lizi Gelber, agreed "that we had to be on guard against simply trying to `raise consciousness' or educate. ... The best way to turn people off from becoming thoroughly engrossed in Jean Dominique was to get on a soapbox." Dominique's championing of the native Creole tongue hits home because Dominique's demonstration of the dialect's hems, haws and guttural intonations brings out the high theater of his personality.

Though exiled twice - once in 1980, under the dictatorship of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, and once in 1991, after the coup that ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide - Dominique had the spine to keep returning to Haiti for one righteous battle after another. Up to the end, he didn't shy from attacking even former friends like Aristide when he saw them becoming corrupt.

During Dominique's '90s exile, Demme began interviewing him in New York. The movie was going to be the upbeat tale of a fighter for democracy and peasants' rights living to see his dreams fulfilled. But on April 3, 2000, Dominique was assassinated.

The finished movie is far more stirring than mournful. Its power comes partly from how surely Demme prepares you for the courage of Dominique's wife, Michele Montas, the revolutionary's partner in every way and the second hero of this picture (she too pursued causes instead of privilege). The movie climaxes a month after the killing. From the booth of Dominique's station, Radio Haiti Inter, Michele declares that Haitian magic has shielded her husband and he is not dead.

"Can you see how shaky my hands were when I was filming that?" Demme asks me. "I didn't know what her text was going to be. Part of going down there to finish the film had to do with me acting out my grief and loss. ... Her going back on the air provided me with a sense of purpose."

Intricate and rhythmic

Dominique does seem to live on - his words never stop resonating in your head. Both in interviews and snatches of his work, he delivers beats as seductive as the film's Wyclef Jean-Jerry Duplessis score. At one point, the soundtrack spills over with Dominique's commentary on an 8-day religious festival at the rural town of Saut D'Eau. The "crazed festivities" blend elements of Catholicism and voodoo as pilgrims bathe, gyrate and pray at a waterfall near a spot where the Virgin Mary's image is said to have been seen in the 19th century. Dominique improvises about "the tragedy and terror of a people awakened with eyes open, wide open" while men and women caught up in ecstatic rites fill Demme's screen.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.