erasing clouds

The Agronomist

reviewed by dave heaton

Partway through The Agronomist, Jonathan Demme's engaging documentary about Haitian activist/journalist Jean Dominique, the film's subject describes being captivated with movies at a young age by calling movies "a window to the world" that let him see what was going on outside of the often harsh climate in which he lived. If the movies offer a dream window to paradise, they also offer a window which reveals the injustices and misdeeds the powerful execute against people across the glove. The Agronomist does exactly that by retelling the modern history of Haiti through the eyes of Dominique and his compadres, who out of restless dissatisfaction with the state of things in Haiti started the country's lone independent radio station, Radio Haiti, as a means of telling the people what was really going on, telling the story that the government-controlled media wasn't telling.

The Agronomist works on one level simply as a portrait of an interesting man: Dominique is an outspoken character with a friendly yet almost manic countenance. And his life story, as he by happenstance finds himself drawn towards political activism and journalism, is both inspiring and ultimately tragic, as he eventually falls as one of countless victims to the cycle of violence that seems never to end in Haiti. But more than just the story of one man, it is a detailed and forceful story of a country, offering an excellent encapsulation of the history of bloodshed and repression that has plagued it. Haiti's history is told through Dominique's eyes, from the perspective of someone who so badly wants life to get easier for his people. We see him as filled with hope but repeatedly greeted with the harsh fact that even when things seem to be getting better, when the country seems headed towards greater peace and democracy, the tide always shifts back in the other direction. And the story of Haiti since the film was made sadly falls right into the patterns portrayed in the film, making it all the more important.

Demme has crafted the film with a homemade style - with plain text coming across the screen between interviews, giving facts - which echoes the do-it-yourself rebel journalism of Radio Haiti. The Agronomist works so well as a documentary because it offers viewers insights into the history and current situation of Haiti in a friendly but not glossed-over fashion. The film is stark yet humanistic, warm yet filled with cold facts about horrible actions.

{Note: The Agronomist was shown in East Lansing, Michigan, as part of the East Lansing Film Festival - it has been making the festival rounds for the past half-year or so, and is scheduled for theatrical release in the U.S. this spring. It opens in New York and Los Angeles on April 16}

Issue 22, April 2004

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