Risky Business

Jonathan Demme is often a flashy filmmaker—and that’s a compliment. The only reason to see The Truth about Charlie, his recent remake of Charade, was the hyperkinetic way he depicted the streets of Paris in all their Africanized, post-colonial glory. If you accepted the film as a really long music video (rather than as a pointless remake of a Cary Grant classic), then you almost got your money’s worth. But Demme is seldom able to connect the high style with compelling content. When he makes an “important” film, such as the AIDS-saga Philadelphia, he tends to button up his collar.

So it’s no surprise that The Agronomist, Demme’s documentary about the martyred Haitian radio journalist Jean Dominique, is a restrained piece of filmmaking. And it couldn’t be otherwise, since he shot only a relatively small portion of the film himself. Demme’s interest in Haiti dates back more than 20 years, when he began meeting exiled Haitians in New York. From 1993-94, he conducted some 15 interviews with the charismatic Dominique, who was again exiled and living in Manhattan. Demme’s camera work here is mostly a series of talking-head shots of Dominique. His plans for making a full-blown film about the charismatic Haitian were cut short when the self-taught but heroic journalist was murdered outside his Port au Prince home in 2000.

To complete the film, Demme had to combine a good deal of archival footage with his own interviews. Among the most amazing is a rare documentary of a voudou festival, the same festival that Dominique broadcast live to the Haitian public in 1973. Demme also includes scenes from Haitian feature films (Dominique became a film buff while studying in France, and later organized a film club in Haiti and encouraged the development of a local film industry) and news footage documenting the rise and fall of “Papa” and “Baby Doc” Duvalier, as well as footage that reflects the enigmatic career of priest-turned-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. In interviews, Demme has said that the additional footage made the film stronger: He had to find a way to make it about Haiti in general, rather than focusing exclusively on Dominique. For an A-list Hollywood director, Demme’s commitment to telling Haiti’s story is very impressive. The Agronomist is the fifth documentary that he has either filmed or produced about the tormented Caribbean country. Until now, the best known has been Haiti: Dreams of Democracy.

Dominique is certainly the heart of Demme’s latest documentary. His thin but incredibly expressive face—a face that might make you think of Don Quixote—is Demme’s lone special effect. The way that thoughts and ideas register on his face, you’d think that his mind and heart were embedded in his skin. You can track his thoughts and feelings as they leap from one high cheekbone, or from one sparkling eye, to the other. Even his amazingly white teeth, and blinding smile seem to be a direct source of thought and emotion.

In his interviews with Demme, Dominique walks us through his childhood as a member of an elite, but apparently honorable Port-au-Prince family. Although his family was relatively privileged, Dominique’s father was a true patriot and nationalist. When the haughty Marines marched by the house, during the long years of direct U.S. occupation, he cautioned his son to turn away. “Don’t look at them,” he ordered. “Don’t look at them.”

The film takes its title from Dominique’s insistence that he was not a journalist, but rather an agronomist. Trained in France, Dominique worked as an agronomist in Haiti for six years, but throughout his life he would remain in close contact with the poor farmers who still represent the majority of the nation’s population. Demme makes excellent use of rare footage of the Haitian peasantry. The images remind us that Haiti is a country much more talked about than seen.

Far more familiar to foreign viewers are images of the thousands of Ton Ton Macoutes—the much-despised police thugs organized by the first Duvalier regime—marching in formation. As the images appear on the screen, we hear Dominique’s accounts of Papa Doc’s gross abuses of power. He quickly convinces the viewer—as he obviously convinced Demme—that his love of truth, justice, and Haiti was so strong that he just naturally fell into radio journalism. It was a profession that he actually invented on the fly, when he was offered a chance to buy Radio Haiti Inter, the country’s oldest radio station. Armed with only his senses, his passion, and his intellect, Dominique took a medium that had previously been devoted to entertainment and began using it to describe Haitian reality for a mass audience. In a country where the vast majority is illiterate, radio plays an important role. Dominique’s highly literary, and even poetic broadcasts, mostly devoted to exposing political wrongdoing and the sufferings of the farming poor, created a sensation. Somebody’s talking about us! Radio Haiti even began broadcasting in Kreyol, rather than the French of the elites, guaranteeing the station an even deeper penetration into the country’s psyche.

Dominique soon realized that he needed a professional journalist to help him, and he hired Michele Montas, a graduate of Columbia University’s School of Journalism. Like Dominique, Montas was a member of the Haitian elite. In her interviews with Demme, she recalls an idyllic childhood—until several members of her family were imprisoned and murdered by Papa Doc Duvalier. From the start, Dominique clearly considered Montas his intellectual equal. Eventually they fell in love and married.

They both recall the Carter presidency as a golden time for Radio Haiti. The oligarchs and their generals felt compelled to pay lip service to press freedom and human rights. But in 1980, the bastards were empowered by the election of Ronald Reagan, and Dominique felt compelled to flee into exile for the first time. He would not return to Haiti until after the fall of Baby Doc in 1986.

In capturing the turmoil of post-’86 Haiti and the rise to power of Aristide, The Agronomist is particularly useful as a historical documentary. Demme shows Aristide as a man who begins as a thrilling truth-teller who preaches to the poor that Haiti’s poverty, contrasted with the wealth of the United States, should not be taken as a sign that God hates the Haitians. Instead, he argues, the contrast between rich and poor is a sign that the United States uses its power to steal Haiti’s wealth. But not long after Aristide returned to Haiti from his own exile and is restored to the presidency, he and Dominique had a falling-out. The journalist grilled him during a radio interview, segments of which Demme incorporates into the film. Dominique accused members of the Aristide government with having cultivated relationships with the nation’s entrenched business elite that were much too close. At the time of his murder in April 2000, the two former allies were still estranged.

The murder of Jean Dominique remains unsolved. In one of the most powerful moments of the film, Demme shows Montas returning to the station and broadcasting exactly one month after her husband’s death. For a while she was able to keep the station running, but finally fled for her own life. Radio Haiti Inter was shut down—most likely forever—last year.

Sadly, the story of a murdered journalist is not an unfamiliar one in Latin America. But conditions in Haiti make the story of Jean Dominique an unusual one. Initially, I found it hard to grasp his exalted stature among his countrymen. No single journalist in Mexico or Chile, for example, could have had quite his profile. Moreover, it has always been the charismatic Aristide who has been the international face of the Haitian Revolution—not the charismatic Dominique. But as Demme’s film reveals, Haiti was so starved for the truth about itself that Dominique’s stature with his fellow Haitians rivaled that of Aristide’s.

When they returned to Haiti in 1986, to catch up to the Revolution as best they could, Dominique and Montas were astonished to find 60,000 people awaiting their arrival at the airport. Dominique had more or less expected to be a forgotten man, but he came back as an idol. I’m still not sure that Demme fully explains the profundity of the hold that “the agronomist” had on the Haitian nation. Then again, Haitian reality is so different from our own that the gap can’t easily be bridged.

David Theis is the author of Rio Ganges, a novel set in Mexico. He lives in Houston.

David Theis is a long-time Houston writer and a longer-time devotee of Mexican food.

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Published at 12:00 am CST