The Agronomist

I caught Jonathan Demme’s labor-of-love doc, The Agronomist (IMDB) the other night on DVD. Demme’s film offers a sweeping overview of the life and assassination of Jean Dominique, owner of Radio Haiti, a journalist, and human rights activist. The film celebrates the significance of Dominique’s independent radio station in combatting the Duvalier dictatorships, primaily through talking heads interviews with Dominique and his family.

The interviews with Dominique are certainly the most enjoyable scenes in Demme’s film (as Ebert notes, Demme recorded several hundred hours of footage over nearly a decade), and the film offers a veiled, but welcome, critique of Reagan’s foreign policy, which essentially propped up the Duvalier regime. But in general, I found myself vaguely dissatisfied with the film for reasons I can’t quite articulate. To some extent, I felt the film seemed to hold back when it came to critiquing US foreign policy (I certainly wanted more specifics on this history).

It may be that I found the storytelling itself a little frustrating. During one interview, Dominique reveals his passion for avant-garde and French New Wave cinema, celebrating Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog and Fellini’s La Strada among others. Domnique comments that its not merely the content of these films that is revolutionary, but the “grammar” of the films, the way they tell their stories. Perhaps the chronological approach, with stock footage supported by interviews, didn’t adequately represent one of Haiti’s most important political activists.

But after reading so many favorable reviews, I’m starting to change my opinion to some degree. In fact, as Cynthia Fuchs’ Pop Matters review implies, even doing a documentary about Haiti, one of the poorest nations in Western Hemisphere, is itself a political act.

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