In addition to directing such Hollywood hits as "The Silence of the Lambs," "Something Wild," and "Philadelphia," Jonathan Demme has long labored to bring the endless travails of Haiti to our attention. He made the 1987 documentary "Haiti: Dreams of Democracy," and has served as presenter or producer on similar projects. In a sense, "The Agronomist" marks the merging of Demme's showbiz and activist sides: it's a nonfiction film about a man who was a controversial star in his own life and his own country -- until elements in the country shot back.
The film's title is a half-smile of irony: Jean Dominique may indeed have studied and practiced agronomy in the early part of his career, but it was as the pro-democracy firebrand of Radio Haiti Inter, the country's most vocal nongovernment station, that he was known, beloved, and feared. "I am not a journalist," he insisted puckishly in a 1993 interview, "I became a journalist." In the gap between the two is the ferocious will Dominique applied to all areas of his life.
Demme catches him in action, in interviews, and in footage that stretches back to the early 1970s, when the tall, charismatic, upper-class Haitian (a direct ancestor fought the French at the 1803 Battle of Vertieres) was scandalizing listeners by broadcasting in Creole and reporting on Vodun ceremonies in the countryside. Human rights was enough of an issue under US president Jimmy Carter that free speech was honored by the government of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, but with the ascension of Ronald Reagan in 1980, says Dominique, "the Haitian spring was over." Duvalier's dreaded death squads, the Tonton Macoutes, shot up Radio Haiti and arrested the staff; Dominique escaped to New York for six years with wife and station codirector Michele Montas.
He returned after the dictator's ouster in 1986; "The Agronomist" includes footage of a stunned Dominique swarmed by tens of thousands of well-wishers on his return to the airport in Port-au-Prince. He backed Jean-Bertrand Aristide for president of the country, exulted when the priest won with 67 percent of the vote -- then fled to New York once more after the 1991 military coup and didn't return until after Bill Clinton's 1994 "peaceful invasion." (American involvement in Haitian affairs is touched on throughout the film, rarely to the good.) Seven months after the military had destroyed his broadcast equipment, Dominique switched Radio Haiti back on with a droll "voila."
The honeymoon with Aristide and his Lavalas party didn't last. Ever the committed leftist, Dominique became increasingly involved with the peasant groups he saw as the best way to keep the politicians honest. Rogue elements in Aristide's circle were almost certainly responsible for shooting the station director to death early on the morning of April 3, 2000, outside the radio station's gates. The furor and public grieving was immense; the murderers have never been brought to justice.
"The Agronomist" puts all these events in clear, compelling order, and the film crackles with Dominique's voice and personality -- but not, unfortunately, his ideas. On the evidence, he was a live wire, a goofball, a charmer, a canny showman, something of an egotist, and equally in love with his homeland and with free speech. He had both the fortune to live in a country where self-
expression is desperately needed and the misfortune to live in a country where it can get you killed. Beyond the clarion calls for the voice of the people to be heard, though, Demme doesn't give us enough of what Dominique thought Haiti should be -- and how, and when, and why. "The Agronomist" is smartly filmed (aside from a few distracting editing fripperies), but it's so dazzled by its subject and saddened by his martyrdom that it never moves past the heroic politics of dissent. Jean Dominique stood against some of the most venal corruption the modern world has seen. I wish the movie told me more about what he stood for.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.