The Agronomist (2003)

Cynthia Fuchs

Jonathan Demme's documentary spends less energy lamenting or even raging than it does extolling the vitality and resilience of its subject.

The Agronomist

Director: Jonathan Demme
Cast: Jean Dominique, Michèle Montas
MPAA rating: N/A
Studio: THINKfilm
First date: 2003
US Release Date: 1969-12-31 (Limited release)

"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.

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.