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.

american society, politics, review, world

Review: Aristide and the Endless Revolution

Jean-Bertrand Aristide was twice elected President of Haiti by margins that would be considered exceptional in a country like America. In 1990, he was elected with a 67% majority. In 2000, he was elected by a stunning 91% majority. In neither of these elections was there reasonable grounds for challenging the results. And yet during his service of both terms, he was removed from power, arguably by US-supported militants.

Until today, I was absolutely ignorant of any of these facts. This is a testaments to, or perhaps an indictment of, a number of factors not limited to: my relatively young interest in politics, my never having made an effort to learn about Haiti, the US government’s desire that it not be portrayed as the agent ousting Aristide (whether or not it truly was), and the media’s willingness to ignore such topics.

I doubt that all of those factors share blame equally, but it does give you some idea of the ignorance I had when sitting down to watch Aristide and the Endless Revolution, directed by Nicolas Rossier and distributed by the little known First Run Features.

The film’s analysis of Aristide’s ouster in 2004 leaves few stones unturned, interviewing people from the rather well-known leftist Noam Chomsky to representatives from the Department of State, which denies any role (beyond providing for his safe passage out of the country) in Aristride’s 2004 resignation.

The documentary tries to cut down the middle on the issue, letting partisans on both sides have time on screen. In the end, they do give more credence to Aristride’s defenders. This is not necessarily to say that it is being untruthful. Indeed, merely presenting both sides of an issue tends to create more muck and less knowledge. Having said that, I will not speak for the truth of the story, not knowing enough about the topic to have a true position on the issue.

But this ignorance that prevents me from taking a position is, in itself, important. This ignorance, both personal and within the electorate, poses a large problem for those interested in defending a country like Haiti from outside and potentially unjust, perhaps even illegal, intervention. Without interested and informed opponents in any great number, it is completely possible that the Bush administrations (both of them) were able to topple the populist Mr. Aristide in favor of an opponent more willing to work to protect the financial stakes of American corporations operating in the troubled country. Someone willing to allow the poor conditions of Haitian workers (only 30% of the population) to continue, to allow them to make a mere 38 cents a day rather than the dollar that Aristide advocated.

It is this troubling problem of ignorance that Aristide and the Endless Revolution points out and questions. And though it tries to enlighten the viewer, and even does an admirable job for an 84 minute documentary, it will never provide all that is needed for one to be well-informed. Is that an irrevocable problem? No, but this is only a place to start, even if a good one.