Just listening to Haiti's Jean Dominique say "deek-tay-tor-sheep" in The Agronomist is immensely pleasurable, but the Creole-inflected, French-accented English is only part of Dominique's charm. A born storyteller, he communicates with every fiber of his being. The hands wave, the head spins, the eyes sparkle and the mouth opens to reveal a small army of blazing white teeth. Dominique, who was shot to death four years ago outside the Port-au-Prince radio station he'd turned into the voice of freedom, must have weighed all of 90 pounds sopping wet. But when sitting before a camera, and especially when sitting at a microphone, he expanded, the sheer force of his personality reaching out to the Haitian people and to anybody else in the world who was concerned about this much-troubled country. Here in this country, we get Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh. Haiti got Jean Dominique.
Directed by Jonathan Demme, who's better known for movies like The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia but who's also made a number of documentaries, including several about Haiti, The Agronomist is a cinematic valentine to Dominique. The approach is hagiographic, but if ever someone qualified for that approach, Dominique might be the one. Loyal to his immediate family, he nevertheless turned his back on the light-skinned, French-speaking elite he was born into. Early on, he founded a film society that, before being banned by the government, brought a global perspective to Haiti's problems. But it was the purchase of Radio Haiti Inter, in the mid-'60s, that set Dominique on a course toward martyrdom. Broadcasting in Creole, the language of the people, this ramshackle WORT-like outfit became a thorn in the side of whatever dictator happened to be in power at the time.
There have been a number of them over the years -- most memorably, Papa Doc Duvalier and his son and heir to the throne, Baby Doc. Demme tries to escort us through Haiti's tortuous (not to mention torturous) political history, but it's difficult keeping track of all the twists and turns, the coups and rebellions, the elections and invasions. It's even more difficult to keep track of the decades-long involvement of the United States, which has often played a bigger role in the Haitian government than the Haitian people, sometimes by sending troops, sometimes by sending spies, sometimes by sending diplomats, sometimes by sending money. In the series of interviews he did with Demme starting in the late-'80s, Dominique doesn't hesitate to criticize the behemoth to the north. But he reserves his harshest words for the petty tyrants who, for whatever reasons of their own, enslaved their own people.
And then there's Jean-Bertrand Aristide, whom Dominique once had great hopes for but eventually lost faith in. Demme replays a radio interview in which Dominique presses Aristide on the corruption that had infested his political party, and it's the crusading journalist at his finest, refusing to give an inch as Aristide tries to slide around the truth. No wonder Dominique's life was always in danger. No wonder death finally caught up with him. For, although he was twice forced into exile, he was incapable of staying out of the fray. "I can smell the enemy," he says over and over in The Agronomist, sniffing the air. The enemy was all around him, and yet he loved his country, loved his people. The movie's title, by the way, refers to the years Dominique spent as an agronomist, working with peasants on soil management. Even then, the goal was to improve the land he was born in.