To say that director Jonathan Demme's superb new documentary The Agronomist is "timely" is both accurate and rather hollow. Yes, the release of this biography of Haitian radio journalist and folk hero Jean Dominique coincides with several months of political upheaval in the tiny island nation, but to watch the film is to realize that Haiti's timeliness has rarely waned in the last two centuries. Demme, showing promising documentary talent on a difficult topic, is able to make the life of one maverick character illuminate the best and worst capacities of an entire culture—which in the case of Haiti means both tireless political optimism and a seemingly inevitable tendency for lawless brutality.
Dominique's life story is one that has been echoed in so many other films, both narrative and documentary, that it carries an almost mythological resonance: Person tells populace about governmental iniquity, person must live like a fugitive until suspicious death. Born into Haiti's French-speaking elite class just four years before a 1934 United States Marine invasion of Haiti—one of several awkward intrusions by the U.S. featured in The Agronomist—Dominique's first career was in agronomy, or farm science. His rapport with Haiti's impoverished laborers soon led Dominique to advocate on their behalf both through radio and independent cinema, which made him few friends in the ruling regime of "Papa Doc" Duvalier.
At a time when wealthy French-speakers had a monopoly on broadcasting, young Dominique introduced the use of Haitian Creole, the language of a vast majority of Haitians, to the station Radio Haiti Inter. Demme retraces Dominique's rise to ownership of the station and the raids, threats and harassment he faced from Duvalier's Macoute secret police leading up to Dominique's first exile to America following a violent military upheaval in Haiti. When he returned six years later, 60,000 Haitians greeted him at the airport and his status as legend was cemented—but he still kept working.
Through it all, Dominique's methodology remained so simple that any peasant could take it to heart, and any dictator should fear it. "You cannot kill what we are fighting for," he tells Demme in one early 1990s interview. "The truth and participation of the citizens." Period. Each word perfectly punctuated with wild hand movements and an ever-present grin, it is impossible not to be taken with this charming and caustic personality—and prepare oneself for the blow that seems all but inevitable.
Demme spent 15 years interviewing and compiling footage of Dominique, his wife and radio parter Michèle Montas and their families in preparation for the film, which means work on it was woven throughout Demme's other projects The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia. Still, Demme's conversations with Dominique, both in Haiti and in New York during Dominique's periods of exile, have an eerie timelessness. Part of this is due to Dominique's youthful face and dramatic verbal flair, but also to rapper and guitarist Wyclef Jean's instrumental score. The ageless Haitian music makes all of Dominique's actions feel like they are part of the same cyclical power struggles—which Demme's handling of Dominique's death further cements.
When, in the prime of his and Demme's documentary relationship, Dominique was assassinated on the front steps of Radio Haiti Inter, Demme doesn't attempt to search out or identify the killer. Anyone capable of silencing such a hopeful, virtuous and vibrant Haitian institution could only be a cog in the military machine whose actions Dominique had devoted his life to exposing, so an individual name would seem anticlimactic. Suffice it to say, "it" killed him. Instead, despite Demme's best attempts to end The Agronomist on an encouraging note with footage of Montas on-air telling her listeners, "Jean Dominique is alive," the immense gravity of Haiti's loss is what sticks around after the film ends. Four years later, Radio Haiti Inter is still closed, Haitians are still dying and Dominique's murder seems like a cruel but effective military strategy. American filmmakers like Demme can create loving tributes to characters like Dominique for years to come, but in the country where such tributes are rooted his legend is all that remains.