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THE AGRONOMIST (PG-13) (2003)

ThinkFilm Inc.

Official Site

Director: Jonathan Demme

Producers: Jonathan Demme, Bevin McNamara, Peter Saraf

 Rating:


At one point during The Agronomist, Jean Dominique, the Haitian radio personality and political activist who was assassinated in 2000, says that, “If you see a film correctly, the grammar of the film is a political act.” Watching The Agronomist, you get the feeling that Demme might share the same conviction, because, in the course of the documentary, what ultimately come off bright and clear are the value of dissent and the ragged beauty of revolution. Unlike most documentaries, which lay bare some kind of issue and attempt to explore that issue and hopefully arrive at some kind of conclusion, Demme’s film simply says to us: Here is a man and he did extraordinary things. Let’s get to know him.

Demme’s “portrait documentary” began in 1986, when Demme first met Dominique and began interviewing and filming him in the hopes of capturing the essence of such an outsize personality. Dominique was the owner of Radio Haiti Inter, the only free radio station in the country. Standing up against an elitist government on behalf of the poor and neglected of Haiti’s population, Dominique often was forced to take self-imposed exiles to New York, where many of the interviews in The Agronomist were filmed.

It is during the interviews that Dominique’s character seems to get boiled down to its essence. His speech bubbles with the enthusiasm of a man who feels he just might be making a difference, and his facial expressions are beyond animated, with his bulging eyes and beetling eyebrows punctuating everything he says with the confidence that comes with knowing you’re right about something. His exuberance can be a tad disconcerting, settling itself somewhere between the passion of dedication and the creepy glint of fanaticism, but his gusto and persistence are such that any reservations one may have are quickly jettisoned in favor of that fraternal feeling that comes with total agreement.

That bond of agreement is especially evident during the interviews with Michéle Montas, Jean Dominique’s partner at Radio Haiti and his widow. Whenever Montas is on screen, you really begin to understand the collaborative nature of effective activism. Separately, Dominique and Montas are freedom fighters defined by their rhetoric; together, they turn that rhetoric into small but crucial results. His enthusiasm is simultaneously countered and buttressed by her practicality and business-like manner. The “risky business of information,” as Dominique calls it, is shown to be, through the efforts of Dominique and Montas, the most important business there is, because a lack of knowledge is the death knell for the poor and ignored. They fly in the face of the government, not for immediate results, but because not to challenge the powerful would be irresponsible.

Information seems to be base for the values of both Dominique and Montas, and The Agronomist itself. There is no concrete agenda in Demme’s treatment of Dominique’s story, simply the workmanlike effort to bring more information to the table. You could almost call it a non-fiction character study, if only the film got inside Dominique’s head a little more. It seems to be holding back, not quite willing to deconstruct its subject. It doesn’t play to the strengths of documentary filmmaking, the ability to cut a path through the hazy jumble of facts to find that core of truth. But even though the film itself isn’t able to show us as much as we might like, Jean Dominique lets us in with no qualms. Speaking directly to the camera in Demme’s straightforward style, Dominique is bursting with the fervor of his subversive quest for meaning and significance. He invites us to share in his excitement, and this inclusive part of his personality becomes the soul of the film. In the end, getting to know him doesn’t seem to be an issue. He speaks to us not with the tone of one man to an audience, but with the insinuating quality of one confidante to another.

—Cole Sowell

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

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Itís worth a matinee ticket.

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Check out the video from the library, if you must.

While we would never encourage anyone to destroy a video...


Mike Doughty



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