In the late 1960s, the Haitian agronomist Jean Dominique -- raised in his country's middle class and educated in France -- took a risk, bought Radio Haiti and switched careers.
He'd already been in trouble with the government of dictator François "Papa Doc" Duvalier: Once, Dominique believed that the cinema could help unite a country in which 80 percent of the people were illiterate, and for a while in the '60s his cinema club thrived until the government shut it down. Soon he transformed his new broadcast acquisition from a medium of mere entertainment -- the standard for Haitian radio at the time -- to one that disseminated news and ideas about politics and history, broadcasting in Creole (the colloquial language of the people) and going on location to describe his nation's incredible poverty and oppression.
In The Agronomist, a very straightforward (if somewhat low-keyed) political documentary, the American director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs) explores Haiti's political history through the lives of Dominique and his wife, Michele Montas, both of them well-educated people (Montas has a master's in journalism from Columbia) who committed themselves to the often-dangerous enterprise of speaking their minds in public. Their courage finally claimed Dominique's life when, at the age of 70, he was assassinated one day in 2000 as he arrived for his morning broadcast.
When Jimmy Carter becomes the U.S. president, his human-rights campaign buoys Haitian dreams. When the cowboy Ronald Reagan takes over, "it's the end of the Haitian spring," Dominique says wryly. In 1991, while Radio Haiti broadcast news of the coup that overthrew Jean-Baptiste Aristide, the country's first elected leader, two trucks of armed soldiers showed up at the station and began shooting. The sounds of the gunfire were broadcast live. Eventually the left hand of President Clinton intervened to restore Aristide -- while the right hand of the CIA continued to support the military leaders.
Dominique -- an animated man, clearly invigorated by the adventures of his perilous life -- discusses his work mostly in English in The Agronomist. Demme tells his story through interviews, historic footage, and tapes of Dominique's old radio broadcasts, which The Agronomist sometimes illustrates with fleeting images of Haitian poverty and strife. A hand-held camera follows people as they talk, and copious titles on the screen keep us well located in time and Haitian history. (A nation of former slaves, Haiti won its independence in the early 1800s by defeating Napoleon's army.)
The Agronomist reminds us that Haiti is more than a land of unimaginable despair. People like Dominique and Montas testify to the resilience and capability of the Haitian people, and Demme's film makes us wonder, once again, why the world's dictators, elected leaders and wealthy capitalists always squander their national resources in the interest of ego and greed. In English and French, with subtitles.