So now you’ve been told.
Radio Journalist’s Ear To, And Voice Of, A People
Directed By Jonathan Demme.
THINKFilm and HBO/Cinemax Documentary Films.
A Clinica Estetico production.
Reviewed by Todd Steven Burroughs
June 6, 2005
Radio, when used correctly, can get you killed.
It’s the most powerful, most personal medium. Nothing else on planet Earth can reach more oppressed people—the poorest, the illiterate and semi-illiterate—with the same information at one time. It explains and reflects issues, events, and people. It provides company as well as context. At its best, its mixture and manipulation of supplied sound nourishes the spirit and offers hope for a better tomorrow and, perhaps, even eventual liberation.
So Jean Leopold Dominique, a member of Haiti’s light-skinned mulatto elite, was tuned in to this power. He purchased a radio station. In the 1970s, he turned himself onto the potential of expanding democracy through a free medium. (“Radio, then,” says Dominique, “was not a news medium. It was entertainment.”) He found freedom through his frequency. He committed class suicide using his (broadcast) voice to rally for peasant power. His reward: a violent death after being twice exiled from his homeland.
Jonathan Demme, the filmmaker behind “The Silence Of The Lambs” and “Philadelphia,” was, of course, unaware that Dominique was going to be assassinated in April 2000, outside of Radio Haiti Inter’s studios; Demme had begun interviewing Dominique in 1986 for a documentary on the beleaguered island. They hit it off. So, on and off, the duo’s filmed talks continued until 1999.
Those interviews form the spine of “The Agronomist,” a tribute to Dominique’s life, his wife, and Haiti’s potential and constant strife. (The title comes from the profession he abandoned once broadcasting took hold.) Dominique’s widow, Michele Montas, co-owner of Radio Haiti Inter, assists Demme in telling the story of her husband’s powerful existence as a broadcaster and a grassroots political activist.
The film, which comes out on DVD Tuesday, chronicles the constant battle for free speech in a nation of U.S.-supported dictators and, subsequently, democratically elected presidents who allowed others to use dictator tactics on their behalf. (“It’s 7 a.m.,” Dominique broadcasts one morning in the 1990s. “They try everything—to gnaw at us; to bury us; to electrocute us; to drown us; to drain us; it’s been going on for more than 50 years. Is there a reason for it to stop? Yes—one: Things much change in Haiti.”) The same politically inspired censorship that Dominique experienced when he formed a film club in the 1960s dogged him throughout his career at Radio Haiti Inter. He said he did two things that caught too many angry, oppositional ears: broadcasting in Kreyol (Creole) and providing “in-for-ma-tion”—political commentary and reporting. “Risky business,” Dominique told Demme more than once. Later on in the film, he says directly but not arrogantly: “I know I am attacked because I’m doing my job the way it should be done.”
At first glance, Dominique doesn’t look like a national hero. Pipe ever prominent, physically slight but not frail, he reminded this reviewer of a kind of mulatto Jacques Cousteau. Then he talks, and the energy in his voice takes over. He animates his words with almost comical expressions and with eyes that, when widened to make a point, look ready to pop out of his head. His pronunciation exposes his values (“being TO-GETHER, doing things TO-GETHER”). The fact that he wears his heart, Haiti, on his sleeve is as visible as his wide, big-tooth, grin. His literal smelling of trouble is comical.
Some of Haiti’s best are among those contributing to the story. Wyclef Jean and Jerry “Wonda” Duplessis expertly handle the score, and Edwidge Danticat, the great author, is one of the film’s associate producers.
Victory seems illusionary, particularly viewing “The Agronomist” in the context of today’s headlines. Radio Haiti Inter is no more. As of June 2005, the men charged with Dominique’s murder have either been killed in jail or escaped when Aristide was forced to pack his bags during last year’s coup. The killing’s masterminds are still unknown, and evidence has been lost. Surviving an attempt on her life in Haiti after her husband’s death, Montas now lives and works in America. Nevertheless, the film ends on a triumphal note. A correct choice, since, according to Dominique: “You cannot kill truth; you cannot kill justice; you cannot kill what we are fighting for.”
Copyright © 2004, 2005, 2007 by Todd Steven Burroughs