“They try everything,” says Jean Léopold Dominique in The Agronomist. “They” would be the enemies of free speech who repeatedly endeavored to shut down his popular radio station, Radio Haiti Inter. Trained as an agronomist, he took to fighting state oppression when faced by its incessant realities, an oppression that was, of course, shaped in large part by the United States, beginning with its military occupation (1913-1934).
The two nations’ interconnected histories continue with François “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s election as president in 1957, supported by the Haitian military and the U.S. government and his establishment of the brutal paramilitary group, the Tontons Macoutes, through what Dominique calls the “Haitian spring,” under Jimmy Carter’s human rights policies (during this time, Dominique notes, he and his wife, Michèle Montas, were able to get their radio station back on the air). This brief season of hope ended abruptly, however, when policies advanced by Ronald Reagan (whom Dominique calls the “cowboy”) enabled Baby Doc Duvalier’s rise to power (“Papa” died in 1971), and forced Dominique’s exile to NYC. In 1986, when the U.S. helped Baby Doc to escape, Dominique and Montas returned, the reopening of the radio station was briefly triumphant. Their return in 1986 brings some 60,000 supporters to the Port-au-Prince Airport, joyous and energized by what seems their bright prospect
Dominique and Montas supported Aristide’s election in 1990, as well as that of his successor, René Préval, in 1995. (During this time, Dominique and Montas left and came back, again.) But neither president fulfilled promises of freedom and fairness for the impoverished population of Haiti, and the radio activists were increasingly disillusioned by what they saw. Their tireless work toward social justice and fair distribution of wealth for the “peasants” they championed earned them many enemies, most in the government they so overtly criticized. On 3 April 2000, the then 69-year-old Dominique was assassinated outside his beloved radio station. (His murder remains unsolved.)
Demme’s documentary spends less energy lamenting or even raging than it does extolling the vitality and resilience of its subject. The Agronomist‘s title refers not only to Dominique’s personal past, but also to the hopes he had for his people’s future, as it denotes his specialization in economics concerning the distribution and management of land. The Haitian struggle is, at various levels, about property—organic production generated by farmland as well as citizens’ self-possession and right to air ideas, to broadcast by radio and disseminate information.
The film consists of archival footage alongside interviews with Dominique’s daughter (who, like her mother, has continued her father’s work), as well as with Dominique and Montas, conducted during their New York exile in the early 1990s. With such imagery, and some brief recapping of history, Demme locates an incredible story that more or less tells itself (helped along in no small way by Wyclef Jean’s intelligent score). Charismatic and enthusiastic, Dominique’s face is as expressive as any animated character’s. Demme worked on the film for some 15 years, and until this year’s eruption of violence (and Aristide’s own abrupt exile), sought distribution in vain. Now, unfortunately, its focus on the costs of oppression in Haiti and U.S. involvement looks entirely immediate and painfully relevant.
It’s easy to understand Demme’s fascination with and dedication to Dominique: he’s a brilliant storyteller and relentless optimist, his hands moving as if independent of his body as he speaks. Careful subtitles and arty editing (a kind of scratching effect, repetition to underline particular points) don’t detract from the sheer vigor of the man. No matter the abuses Dominique witnesses or endures, he persists in his struggle for freedom, offering inspiration for those who might feel overwhelmed by circumstances less dire than his own. A film lover, he began his career in media as a programmer for a local theater, forming a deep affection for Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog, as it revealed to him the persuasive and poetic powers of movies. His participation with this project, which end he never saw, is plainly a function of faith, that such art might have effects beyond emotional transportation.
As Carmen Gentile reports recently in her article, “On the Ground in Haiti,” Haiti remains the hemisphere’s poorest nation, multiply burdened by unforgiven 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 four 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.