Review: The Agronomist

The Agronomist is a 2004 film about the life of an agronomist. As you may infer from that sentence, it didn’t win large audiences. But to say it’s about an agronomist is to minimize the truth. Jean Dominique called himself an agronomist, as was his training, but this underestimates his work, his charisma, and his struggle.

A more useful explanation of the man would be that he was a Haitian journalist and activist. His story is so intimately intertwined with his country’s troubled history that the director, Jonathan Demme, understandably found it all but impossible to tell one without the other.

I’ve struggled with my ignorance about Haiti before, in my review of Aristide and the Endless Revolution, and I admit to having done little about it. Even as I regularly demand that the world–or at least the 10 people who pay attention to me–work hard to combat the easy ignorance that pervades modern life, I confess I’m rather careless myself.

But ignorance doesn’t make The Agronomist any harder to grasp. The history of the consecutive dictatorships of “Papa Doc” and “Baby Doc” Duvalier are, at least in the telling of Dominique and Demme, mercifully easy to understand. They were run-of-the-mill bullying third-world strong men. It’s an easy archetype to grasp.

And so it is against these force that the young agronomist–who never had land of his own to cultivate–began to became a journalist and a crusader. And when given the chance to purchase the radio station at which he learned the ropes, Jean Dominique jumped at the chance.

His rise to national prominence is much more presumed than presented. Being the most innovative and informative program in a country where anything other than repeating official decrees is seen as dangerous, Dominique gained prominence feeling assured by Jimmy Carter’s human-rights presidency.

Demonstrating the confounding impact of the United States on countries few of its citizens pay attention to, Reagan’s ascension allowed “Baby Doc” to violently force Jean Dominique off the air and into exile in New York. His return, after the Duvalier regime fell, is celebrated by at least sixty thousand. The violent ouster of the newly-elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991 also forces Dominique back into exile while his radio station is forcibly demolished.

Jean Dominique in seen, in the posthumous documentary, as the soul of Haiti. And it’s easy to understand the desire to paint such a picture: he’s charismatic, he’s charming, he’s passionate about the people. Unacquainted as I remain with Haitian history, I can not say how well that portrait meshes with reality.

The story is both interesting and important. That alone makes it a good documentary. That it’s subject is so expressive and dynamic before the camera makes it a well-told story as well. Surely there are better and more comprehensive examinations of Haiti in the world, but until I find one, I’ll tell you that The Agronomist is a best introduction to Haitian history I’ve seen.

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