This is one of the most inspiring documentaries I've ever seen coming from my country. Jean Dominique's unparalleled quest for freedom really made my day and deepened my enormous respect for such idealists. Jonathan Demme creates a film that is no less absorbing and considerably more powerful. The film focuses on Jean Dominique, a Haitian radio station owner, journalist, and tireless human rights activist. Dominique was born to the thin upper crust of Haiti but turned his back on that class to advocate for the poor and landless. Exiled twice to America (in 1980 and 1991), he returned to Haiti both times to press for democracy and land reform. He was assassinated in April 2000, a deep loss for the Haitian people and the world.
The film stitches together interviews Demme did with Jean Dominique over several years. Even from that grainy footage, it is apparent how charismatic Dominique was. His excitement is infectious; when he opens wide his eyes and smiles, we can't help but smile with him. At various stages, he talks about the "risky business" of operating a free radio station in a dictatorship, and we're inspired to undertake our own risky business in search of freedom. What's particularly impressive (and appealing) about Dominique is his indefatigable optimism. But when he talks about the CIA's role in his country, we're reminded of why giving that institution too much power (even in this age of terrorism) might not be such a good thing. His invitation to join his struggle along with his honesty and strength could not be bent. Only bullets could (and did) stop him.
Another extremely touching aspect of his story is the level of bonding they had with his wife. It is such a rarity and such a wonderful thing to happen, that you cannot but feel happy that these two people have met and enjoyed their life together.
"The Agronomist" is far from a perfect film. Demme, who has directed such movies as "Silence of the Lambs" and "Philadelphia," skips over important events and large blocks of time. Those not intimately familiar with Haiti's recent past may find it difficult to keep up. There is also a lack of context at certain points: what role have the various militias played? how has President Aristide affected the country and how has power changed him? By focusing so completely on the charismatic figure of Dominique, the documentary sometimes loses its way.
Still, this is a rare glimpse into a country that's again in the news. As Dominique himself states, "Cinema is a window on to the world...If you see a film correctly, the grammar of the film is a political act."
***Haiti remains the hemisphere's poorest nation, multiply burdened by unforgiving debt as well as increasing inability even to structure or even imagine another, more hopeful future. How sad Dominique would be to see what has happened in the seven years since his murder. And yet, how fiercely and relentlessly he would continue to fight for that hope. Indeed, how fierce and beautiful he remains in this film, a call for resistance against injustices both general and devastatingly specific.****