The Agronomist

(Jonathan Demme, USA, 2003)


"Risky business!" Activist Jean Dominique often uses this phrase to punctuate his account of political struggle in Haiti since the start of the 1960s. In particular, he is referring to his attempt to establish and maintain an independent station, Radio Haiti, through all of the disastrous change in government, waves of repression, and ‘friendly interventions’ by the UN and America.

The Agronomist, a wonderful documentary by Jonathan Demme (better, in fact, than most of his fiction films of the past twenty years) hurls us, from the very start, into the whirlwind of Dominique’s personality and creativity. His radio broadcasts were a fusion of commentary, irony, art and entertainment.

Dominique might well have become an inspirational filmmaker if the government of the mid ’60s had not shut down his cinema club – a hothouse where classic art films including Night and Fog (1955) and even La Strada (1954) seemed to hold political lessons for the oppressed Haitian people.

Demme was a friend of Dominique and managed to fulsomely document his words and actions, both in at home and in exile, until his assassination in 2000. Around this remarkable figure, the film unfussily but powerfully sketches a social history of Haiti.

Despair could have easily become the keynote of this sobering chronicle. However, Dominique’s belief in the vitality and resistance of ‘the people’ (and especially the peasants) keeps shining through.

Demme’s film career has always had a strong leftist side, but the renewed enthusiasm for political documentary in the era of Michael Moore has created a cultural climate conducive to an unabashedly partisan work like The Agronomist. The film shows us the human face of radical struggle in a way that few documentaries succeed in doing – because Dominique’s activism was inseparable from his humour, his "strong love" for his wife Michele Montas and children (about which we hear moving testimonies), and his wholehearted enjoyment of a true ‘popular culture’.

MORE Demme: Beloved, The Manchurian Candidate, The Truth About Charlie, Ricki and the Flash, Something Wild

© Adrian Martin May 2005

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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