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.