If you haven’t seen The Agronomist—-Jonathan Demme’s documentary about Jean-Léopold Dominique, the trailblazing Haitian journalist—you really should allocate about 90 minutes of whatever time you have left in your life span to do so.
The helmer of Radio Haiti-Inter died at the age 69 in 2000 from (an) assassin(s) bullets (along with his caretaker Jean-Claude Louissaint), but thankfully Demme already had plenty of footage of the journalist, captured over the years, during two exiles that he and his wife Michèle Montas spent in New York, and pieced them together to create what has got to be one of the most compelling documentaries about Haiti. Ever.
This documentary is interesting from so many angles. There’s the freedom of speech angle. Although born into an intellectual family, and one of the most elite families in the island nation, Dominique’s heart was always with the people. Many people were puzzled that Demme chose to title his documentary The Agronomist and not The Journalist (after all, that’s the profession that brought him fame), but Dominique clarifies this at one point during one of his many sit-down interviews with Demme. He is really a farmer at heart, a lover of the land, who became a journalist, a spokesperson for the poor—out of necessity—because there was no one else to speak for them. From the time Dominique’s father would take him to tour the outskirts of Haiti, and make the rounds of farming lots, the love for the earth was apparent in him. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Dominique stood up for Haiti’s farmers, whose rice harvest was being forcibly divided with corrupt countryside chiefs. This was top news on Dominique’s radio broadcasts on Radio Haiti-Inter, which he had by now, purchased from the original owner.
One cannot talk about the Jean-Léopold Dominique experience without mentioning Michèle Montas. It’s no wonder the two joined forces to create one of the most admired journalistic teams in Haiti. Behind every great man, there’s a spectacular woman, and Michèle Montas was that person in Dominique’s life. She had no typical childhood, at least not “typical”, in the sense of what we “typically” think we know about people’s lives in Haiti. At one point, nearly her whole family was wiped out, prompting an early exile to Maine, where she finished high school. Her move to Maine, brings us to another angle, the immigration and social class angle. Montas had a privileged childhood indeed. She actually became a homecoming queen pre-Civil Rights in the United States of America. Yeah, you read right, a little Haitian girl became homecoming queen at a probably predominantly white senior high school. Granted, it was in Maine, not in Deep South Mississippi or anything, but that part of the documentary really caught my attention…that waay back in the early 1960s, some scrawny little Haitian girl was voted homecoming queen at an American school. Didn’t she think the odds were against her? Or because she was not accustomed to color discrimination in her home country, she went in, fully confident, and that confident won those voters over. Her brother, Montas said in the documentary, was already living in Maine, which of course just confirmed what I’ve read in books about Haitian immigration…first the exodus started with the middle class (who’ve always sent their sons and daughters overseas to get educated, anyway), and then came the boat people (their drowning and mistreatment and repatriation is also well-documented in the documentary). This aspect of the documentary took my mind back to this letter that was being auctioned on Ebay once. It was a letter from a Haitian student in 1927 who was attending some prestigious U.S. university, that he sent to his father in Haiti. Nothing new under the sun, as the maxim goes. Montas, is the woman behind the man, indeed. A graduate of Columbia University’s journalism school, she is equally as intriguing as her husband, and with good reason, is a chunky part of this fascinating documentary.
One cannot help but be taken with the use of throwback, sepia and black and white photos and paintings and how they were blended to lend to the narrative power of the documentary (Demme is a renowned Haitian art collector). In the last few minutes of the documentary, one feels as if one knew Jean-Léopold Dominique personally. He was quite a personality, one can surmise. The sniffing of the air, the mariner’s caps, the trademark pipe, the journalist mannerisms, and the boldness, his intrepid laughter, his uncanny sense of humor, his audacity when it came to outing the truth. How can a man whose life was threatened so many times, have insisted on continuing to speak so boldly? He seems to have had the premonition that he would be killed eventually (he had already told his wife that that he wanted his ashes to be spread in a river).
If you’re hoping to learn more about Dominique, or to gain a more in-depth perspective about Demme’s love for Haiti, don’t look to the DVD. One was expecting some extras on the DVD, but perhaps Demme felt that all that could have been said was already said by Dominique. The art on the cover, with Dominique having his two fingers in the air, looks odd. If one were an Illuminati theorist, one would say that Dominique’s fingers look like the pagan god Batshuphet. The photo used on the DVD is actually photo taken of Dominique in 1986, upon his return from a nearly 6-year exile. That scene is telling. People have gathered at Haiti’s airport, friends, fans, fellow journalists, curious onlookers, and perhaps future foes. “Dominique! Dominique!” they start to chant. But he reverts the chant away from himself, shouting “Haiti, Haiti”, and the whole crowd joins with him.
Demme recruited Wyclef to do the score for the documentary (“Yo di-m drug dealer Ayiti/Se Mercedes Jeep yape kondi…I heard that all the drug dealers in Haiti are rolling their 4×4 Mercedes…”), and also interviewed Aboudja, a colleague, Dominique’s sisters, daughter, Montas herself, as well as Rassoul Labuchin and Arnold Antonin, two men who were members of Dominique’s cinema club in the 70s. It could have easily been Demme’s show, after all, he is one of the most acclaimed cinema directors of our time. But he made sure that there was one star throughout, and that was Jean-Léopold Dominique.
You cannot kill the truth with a bullet, is the documentary’s tagline. But apparently they killed a man with one.