Making Sense of Haiti

It's easy to understand how filmmaker Jonathan Demme (Stop Making Sense, The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia) was captivated by the theatrical buoyancy of Jean Dominique, one of Haiti's most prominent human-rights fighters and that bedeviled country's most combative radio journalist. Though Dominique -- slim, wiry, a pipe stuck in his mouth -- cuts a somewhat unprepossessing figure, his emotive-verging-on-manic personality easily fills a screen, even when recorded on shaky video. Demme met and began to film Dominique in exile, in the late 1980s, and continued shooting footage with the Haitian crusader over the years. The result is a 90-minute homage to the man and his cause that also serves, unfortunately, as an epitaph to his martyrdom, and to that of his nation.

Indeed, Dominique's life almost perfectly coincides with Haiti's modern history. He was born in 1930, when U.S. Marines were still occupying the island, so his nationalist indignation took shape early. After studying in France, he returned home as a young agronomist -- and, incidentally, as the committed cinephile who opened Haiti's first film club, only to see it shuttered a few years later by the dictatorship of "Papa Doc" Duvalier.

By the mid-1960s, Dominique had purchased Radio Haiti Inter and turned the station into a bold voice of opposition. "Risky business," he called it. Jailings and beatings followed and eventually led to his 1980 exile in New York City. When the Duvalier regime collapsed seven years later, Dominique returned to Port-au-Prince and was met at the airport by 60,000 cheering supporters. By 1990, when the radical priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide had been elected president by a two-thirds majority, Dominique had reason to believe that his dreams of Haitian democracy and freedom were at last being realized. That reverie came crashing down within a year: A right-wing military coup unseated Aristide and once again thrust Dominique into exile. In 1995, when Aristide was restored to power by the "peaceful invasion" of U.S. troops dispatched by Bill Clinton, the always-ebullient journalist reopened his radio station.

An ardent supporter of the social revolution promised by Aristide, Dominique became disillusioned when the new regime began more and more to resemble the old one. In April 2000, after a public squabble with one of Aristide's security chiefs, Jean Dominique, age 70, and an assistant were gunned down on the steps of Radio Haiti Inter.

In The Agronomist, Demme reconstructs this extraordinary life, deftly mixing stock news footage with his own interviews with Dominique, and with the journalist's courageous wife, sisters, daughter and co-workers. And although the film may be about 20 percent overweight, the human story of a man who -- for four decades -- spat in the eye of his tormentors and gleefully accepted his role as a latter-day Sisyphus commands the viewer's attention.

Demme's chronicle concludes with Dominique's wife, Michele Montas, reopening the station yet again, a month after her husband's funeral. Ending The Agronomist here saves the audience further pain. Twenty months after Dominique's murder, the news director of another Haitian radio station was hacked to pieces by a machete-wielding gang. Soon after this, a third station burned to the ground. Montas' bodyguard was murdered in late 2002, and she once more fled the country. Earlier this year, an odd coalition of street thugs, former military officers and disaffected grassroots groups squeezed Aristide out of power. If Dominique were alive today, he'd be amazed, no doubt, to find his people are right back where they were at the time of his birth -- with U.S. Marines guarding an unelected government.

The Agronomist is clearly a labor of love for Demme, whose big-budget remake of The Manchurian Candidate -- transposed from the Korean to the Gulf War -- opens this summer. I can't imagine anyone in Hollywood urging him to use what was essentially his home video to craft a full-length project on such an obscure and earnest subject. He's to be doubly congratulated, then, and not least for his persistence in producing a valuable and deeply haunting portrait of a social activist who lived and died for the highest ideals.


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