The Agronomist Movie Review

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The Agronomist, a documentary from director Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia), works for the same reason his previous non-fiction cinema (Stop Making Sense, Cousin Bobby) does. He picks an interesting subject, and then steps out of the way. Here he profiles the inimitable voice of Radio Haiti Inter, Jean Dominique.

In 1968, native Haitian Dominique bought Radio Haiti Inter and turned it into the one source of information unfiltered by the government. He broadcast his anti-establishment message in Creole, unprecedented in his country as all other stations catered to the wealthy by speaking French. This demonstrated his mandate to use the station to "serve the people" by being a consistent voice for democracy.

For his trouble, he was sent into exile on two occasions by the brutal regimes that successively controlled Haiti. Each time his station's equipment was destroyed, he returned, rebuilt, and started all over again. We are even shown the bullet holes that still riddle the station's edifice.

The only thing more fascinating than the story is the man. Dominique is a wonder to watch. His dynamic, percussive speaking style and wide-eyed visage of utter conviction is transfixing. And for all the tragedy that touches his life, he remains the most cheerful interviewee in the film.

This is why Demme's style works so well here. All he has to do is set up the camera and let Dominique speak. He could run two hours of that talking head and still have an entertaining documentary to show for it. Fortunately, he puts in a little more effort than that.

Music provided by Wyclef Jean and Jerry "Wonder" Duplessis is ubiquitous, yet unobtrusive. Demme uses not only the music, but Dominque's own rhythms and speech patterns to inform the editing. To accentuate the journalistic aspect, lettering appears across the screen like a teletype to introduce us to the major players.

Most of Demme's touches help, but occasionally he goes too far. Though repetition can be good for emphasis, cutting to Dominique saying the same couple of words three times in rapid succession reduces him to a Haitian Max Headroom.

A more fundamental problem involves the shrouded causes behind what we see. Demme does a good job of establishing connections between the CIA and the chronic coups that plague the nation. But the motives for U.S. involvement remain murky at best. Dominique's passion for justice and democracy is abundantly clear, but the roots of that commitment are only lightly touched upon in a brief discussion of his father. We learn a lot of the "what" in this film but very little of the "why."

What Demme does accomplish is similar to one of his subject's most effective strategies. Dominique would bring in news from around the world that his listeners would hear nowhere else, including news of similar plights in Latin America or the Middle East. These stories would shed light on what these people were experiencing at home. Like Dominique, Demme understands the power of allegory.

So, in telling us the story of The Agronomist, Demme reflects not only on Haiti, but on Iraq and countless other countries that have witnessed the bloodshed that's part and parcel of outside influence in political struggle. At one point in the film, the U.S. sets up an interim government in Haiti promising to hand over power to a democratically elected body at a later date. Demme doesn't have to highlight the implication. As with his subject, he need only step out of the way and let the events speak for themselves.

Reviewed at the 2004 Philadelphia Film Festival.

Cast & Crew

Director :

Starring : , Michèle Montas

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The Agronomist Rating

" Excellent "

Rating: NR, 2003

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