A labor of love throughout and a work of stultifying dullness for more than half its 90-minute length, Jonathan Demme’s documentary The Agronomist gets personal and all-together too up-close with Jean Dominique, the Haitian radio journalist and human rights activist who was assassinated on April 3, 2000. In an interview, Demme describes Dominique as “…extremely dramatic, smart, funny, entertaining, and wonderful to spend time with.” (The two first met in 1986 and their filmed conversations began seven years later.) The qualities that endeared Dominique to the director don’t translate on-screen, at least not as Demme has shot and edited his footage. The film raises an important issue about the relation of the camera to its subject: The Agronomist impales us with Dominique, with his long white teeth (frequently bared), the whites of his (widened) eyes, his over enunciated syllables, and his excessively theatrical habit of supplying his own sound effects. Dominique, as noble and invaluable as his life’s work was, comes across as a pedantic egomaniac.
Some of the most egregious examples could easily have been excised. When Dominique demonstrates how he “smelled the enemy,” his nostrils flare in a display of exaggerated sniffing. Later, after the military coup that ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in September 1991, and tanks roll down the streets firing artillery at Radio Haiti’s broadcast headquarters, and we have heard the sounds of the actual shooting, Dominique—in an overbearing play to the camera—imitates the “rat-a-tat-tat” of the machine gun fire. Why does Demme include this? Then there’s Dominique’s full-on smile that accompanies grim pronouncements, such as when he speaks of actions by General Raoul Cedras as, “…carefully planned to break the backbone of the Haitian people.” The ear-to-ear grin on Dominique’s face is incomprehensible.
Unlike recent documentary filmmakers who incorporate process as a subject in its own right, Demme doesn’t make The Agronomist about his own obsession. It might have helped if he had. The movie, especially in the first 45 minutes or so, needs to be opened up a bit, to fixate on someone besides the emphatic ham at its center. There are gripping passages to be found; the film works best when Dominique is off-camera and out of earshot. Demme subtly draws a connection between Haitian unrest and CIA activity without belaboring the point. He brilliantly juxtaposes the rise of Reagan (glimpsed in cowboy attire) with “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s November 1980 raid on Radio Haiti. The Tonton Macontes smash the station’s equipment to bits, shooting the place up like, well, like rootin’ tootin’ cowboys out of the Gipper’s B-movie westerns. This sequence, as does the section covering Duvalier’s 1986 flight into exile and the subsequent relief his departure brought, resonates with historical verisimilitude. We get a taste of the danger and the exhilaration.
An aside about the interiors of Radio Haiti and the too briefly touched upon Radio Soleil: Having worked in the medium myself, I can tell you that the booth-size studio control room, the dinosaur-like reel-to-reel machines, the bulky cartridge cassettes (stacked in rows, labeled with typewritten stickers) used in that era for recorded ad spots or music beds—all brought back quite clearly my own memories of pre-digital community, college, and public radio.
Demme also interviews at length Michèle Montas, Dominique’s partner in life, exile, and radio commentaries. Ms. Montas emerges as a much more engaging presence than her late husband. Discussing her education in the States, she makes her transition from a University of Maine homecoming queen into a rioting Columbia radical, circa ’68, appear to be the most logical succession of events one could imagine. Although here, too, Demme frames Ms. Montas in talking-head shots when surely other camera placements would serve more cinematically. The director does, however, inject a bit of suspense into the murder of Dominique—just enough so that we sense the loss. The final scenes are poignant. Ms. Montas and three friends take turns dispensing Dominique’s ashes. Using a gourd as an urn, they pass it back and forth, each one pouring seemingly endless streams of dust into the sea. The ashes just keep coming forth when the gourd should reasonably be empty. It’s as if in death as in life, Jean Dominique couldn’t scale back the sheer breadth and depth of his personality. – NPT