New Line // 2003 // 91 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // August 9th, 2005
You cannot kill the truth with a bullet.
Compiled over a 10-year period from interview footage collected by acclaimed filmmaker Jonathan Demme (The Silence Of The Lambs, Philadelphia, Stop Making Sense), The Agronomist tells the story of Jean Dominique, a radio broadcaster from Haiti who constantly pushed the political envelope throughout his career and rallied an oppressed nation to action and change, through Dominique's own words and those of his family and friends.
The owner and operator of Haiti's only independent radio station, Radio Haiti Inter, Jean Dominique was at the forefront of the cultural revolution, broadcasting the plight of his people for all to hear despite the actions of an increasingly anxious and aggressive military dictatorship. Constantly under pressure from the ruling regime, Dominique took an almost mischievous pleasure in speaking out against the injustices faced by Haitians.
He broke ground by refusing to broadcast in French, the language of the upper-class, choosing instead kreyòl (Haitian Creole), the language spoke by the majority of peasant-class Haitians. He was greatly moved by the plight of the common Haitian man under the oppressive, decade-long father-and-son regime of the Duvaliers, and would often openly criticize the government. Though his actions rallied the people and made him a national icon of free speech overnight, his bravado placed him in enormous personal danger. His family received numerous death threats and gunfire tore up the outside of the studio; he also endured constant shutdowns by the government.
Forced into exile in the 1980s, Dominique fled with his family to New York City, but remained politically active for the rights and freedoms of Haiti, eventually returning in 1986 to resume broadcasting after the fall of Duvalier. Again fearful for his life, he fled to New York again from 1991 to 1994, during a period in which revolutionaries overthrew the Haitian government. The Agronomist culminates with Dominique's brutal assassination in 2003, gunned down outside of his radio station. The crime received little investigation by the local government and nobody was been prosecuted for it.
The Agronomist is a clever title, one that rings with truth as well as ironic wordplay. An agronomist is an expert in soil management and field-crop production, the profession that Jean Dominique went to university to study in Paris. Having returned to his native Haiti and finding himself drawn to the plight of the oppressed masses, he fell into a career of counterculture journalism and radio broadcasting instead of agriculture. In the film, he states that he never thought of himself as a journalist...he will always be an agronomist in his own mind. The clever pun, of course, is that, in a way, he is exactly that...a tender of the land, manipulating the environment to grow the seeds of discontent into full-blown revolution. A bit corny, I admit, but also dead accurate.
Jean Dominique and his wife have stories to tell. Any radio broadcaster who gets arrested by the government and hears his fellow journalists and co-workers screaming in pain, being tortured in the room next door, would. A staunch advocacy of bringing democracy to Haiti and ending the countless dictatorships and military coups, Dominique has led a dangerous life. He also lived an incredibly prolific and influential existence. After returning to Haiti after six years of exile, Dominique was stunned to find 60,000 screaming Haitians waiting for him at the airport, chanting his name in praise. Fighting through the crowds back to his long-abandoned radio station, he discovered the outside of the building was bullet-ridden and every piece of electronic equipment had either been shot to pieces or lit on fire. Not even Howard Stern has to deal with problems like that.
The strength of a documentary is based on the material assembled, and the collection of footage assembled to form The Agronomist is nothing short of marvelous. Compiled by Jonathan Demme from numerous interviews, combined with stock footage from the streets of Haiti, the film even includes home-video quality footage shot at Dominique's funeral, which is both intimate and disturbing at the same time. We get a strong sense of Dominique as a person: he is fiery and wily, with a mischievous, almost Machiavellian, sense of humor. He is articulate, passionate, and incredibly strong-willed, almost stubborn, and yet full of common sense and pragmatism. He is equally capable of going on radio and insulting the military regime, ducking under desks to avoid bullet fire, as he is going into political exile. Dominique is a fascinating personality, and one experiences a genuine sense of loss at his passing by the time the film ends. It is easy to see why Demme as a filmmaker was drawn to such a man...and kept a camera focused firmly on Dominique whenever he opened his mouth.
The Agronomist is a complex film, in part due to the social and political events surrounding the nation of Haiti over the last few decade -- knowledge of which the film naturally assumes the viewer is familiar with. As political events start to escalate towards the end of Dominique's life, the film begins moving at a rapid pace, glazing over key events and developments in Haitian life and government to keep pace. Unless you are familiar with the social and political events of Haiti over the last 20 years, the film may feel convoluted, and this is only made worse by the total lack of supplementary material. There are no extras on this disc, and I mean that literally. Not even a booklet insert in the DVD case. These days, there is no excuse for this. This film desperately needs context -- both social and political -- all of which should have been included on this DVD in the form of essays, maps, timelines, backgrounds, and documentaries...anything to assist the viewer in making heads and tails of the chaotic uprisings of Haiti over the last three decades.
Things get even more complicated when Demme digs in some uncomfortable closets for skeletons, including the egregious tendency of the CIA and the United Nations toward influencing developing nations, propping up or bringing down democratically elected leaders to benefit foreign interests. Fiercely opposed to "foreign interests" influencing the development of Haitian democracy, Dominique became increasingly frustrated after military coups ousted democratically-elected presidents supported by the United States, a fact which made his political exile in Manhattan all the more ironic. Don't be surprised if The Agronomist takes a viewing or two to settle in. There is a lot of information swirling past the screen, and Dominique is larger than life, so much so that a single film cannot possibly contain him. Having watched the film three times, I admit that I have a hard time keeping up.
So is The Agronomist any good? It is entrancing, mesmerizing, and fascinating, but slightly biased as a documentary; more a feisty eulogy to a political activist than a balanced film, bordering on propagandist. It comes with some flaws, to say the least. The pacing can be pretty erratic; the first hour of the film plays like an A&E Biography, and the last half hour delves into political dictatorship and military coups. I enjoyed it, but I can recognize how others might see this film and dismiss it as manipulative, boring, and tedious. But I think the film succeeds, if only to make you a fan of Jean Dominique. Man, what a cool, cool guy.
We get a fairly straightforward presentation from New Line on this DVD, which is just fine by me. The transfer, a full-screen image, is laden with rickety and damaged documentary archival footage, so getting a sense of the quality is almost impossible. Worse, the interview footage with Jean Dominique was taken from a decade worth of material, and the quality ranges accordingly. I would mark the visuals as decent, simply because I failed to notice any major problems with tone, color transition or black levels. Both English and French 2.0 tracks are included, which perform within reason; no particularly impressive points, but no outright problems either. The score, comprised mostly of original music by fellow Haitian Wyclef Jean, is intriguing, but sporadic; you only hear it for a few fragmented seconds here and there, which is a shame.
Knowing perilously little about Haiti as a country and only possessing a vague notion of where to locate the small country on a map, my ignorance was something of a stumbling block appreciating a film like The Agronomist. I expected something of a documentary when watching the film for the first time, but instead found something inherently more personal.
As it stands, The Agronomist is perhaps 80 percent biography, 20 percent documentary. One could argue that the film needs more of a backdrop of tumultuous political environment, places, and people in order to fully appreciate not only the events depicted in the film, but also the man himself. As it stands right now, The Agronomist stays primarily focused on Jean Dominique himself, and only fills in the political backdrop when it deems appropriate. As such, we get a lavish tapestry of a man's life, a clear impression of a spontaneous and impish man with exceptional courage and righteousness, but we occasionally lack the basic knowledge to fill in the gravity of his actions against the cultural and political ideology of Haiti.
Of course, if the film had focused more on the background events and politics, we would have a full and rich appreciation of the events and magnitudes of Dominique's actions, but have little impression of the man himself and what drove him to such radical action. This is a double-edged sword of an argument. Either way you slice it, the film loses something important; in this case, it would have become a boring documentary and lost the personal biographical touch that gives the film its spark and life.
It is hard to say which would make for a more satisfying film experience. Clearly, Demme made his decision to focus the film primarily on the man; and having met with him numerous times and filmed his interviews, one can assume he probably made the correct decision. Nevertheless, the political and cultural backdrop provided in The Agronomist will, I suspect, be insufficient a preparation for the average viewer, and a hindrance to appreciating such a deeply introspective and personal film.
So go do some reading. It will make the world of difference.
Idealistic and heartbreaking, The Agronomist is a powerful posthumous testimony to a man who deserves the recognition of the world, if only for trying to make it a better place for the oppressed and downtrodden. More a moving testament to the life of a man than an objective biography, The Agronomist makes no bones about its left-winged political ideology; and if you are okay with that, then there is much to appreciate in this complex and detailed biography.
The DVD could have used some extras, but not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2005 Adam Arseneau; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 91 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Haiti (Wikipedia)
* Justice for Jean Dominique