Cinema Signal:

Haiti in Focus:
A Guide to the People, Politics, and Culture

. "The Agronomist"

This well made documentary receiving virtually unanimous critical praise recalls the life of a man that defines courage, fearlessness, and an obsession with freedom for his fellow Haitian people. Across the years of dictatorships, Jean Leopold Dominique, popularly known as The Agronomist because of his early training, operated a free radio station and broadcast messages promoting human rights and democracy. In the end, the danger he posed to the sitting strongman caught up to him with a bullet.

Carefully edited footage assembled by director-filmmaker Jonathan Demme ("Philadelphia", "Silence of the Lambs"), record the struggles of a man devoted to awakening his countrymen to the repressions and corruptions of dictators. With the microphone as his weapon for freedom, he spoke daily from his station, Radio Haiti Inter, outliving a succession of dictatorships, including Duvalier Sr., "President-for-life" Jean-Claude Duvalier, his son, and the military strongman who ousted Haiti's first elected president, Aristide.

Dominique was an irrepressible radical, (in terms of the political realities of his country) broadcasting his messages for the people in the language of the people, Creole. With his wife Michelle Montas ever at his side, his uncompromising reportage on political and human rights issues became a staple of the Haitian people's news diet, developing a presence that became a threat to political leaders and twice sending him to exile in New York.

First using his broadcasts to help elect his friend Mr. Aristide to the presidency, the utter respect with which Dominique is held by the people suggests his own political power--one that could as easily enthrone or dethrone. The relationship with Aristide goes sour, possibly because of a perception that Dominique's denial of support has become a politically lethal threat.

The source of the order to silence Dominique with a bullet in 2000 has never been established, shrouded behind an effective coverup in which judges were threatened, witnesses disappeared and some killed, things that seem possible only with the complicity of the ruling party. The inference, of course, is that it came from the very top of Aristide's Lavalas government, the man himself, who never has been able or willing to build true democratic institutions for the common Haitian.

Two years later an attempt was made to silence Dominique's wife, Michelle, ostensibly (if not obviously) for carrying on his broadcasting legacy from their oft machine-gunned radio headquarters.

The defiance of powerful political leaders is a dangerous vocation, and Dominique was a very much in-your-face defier. His verbal style is acidic, delivered in staccato intensity. Vanity and pride are part of his screen presence, suggesting a manic tunnel-visioned drive. By the time you realize why this story is focused so much on him, you begin to understand that the personality explains the conviction. I'd have to say it's entirely justified by the cause that funneled such energy and conviction.

He had to know the constant mortal danger that shadowed him. The factor of amazement is that he managed to survive and spread the word for as long as he did--not that he died for his enlightened viewpoint and good efforts. All of which paints a portrait of a kind of courage that is as much a part of this man as the blood that ran in his veins. Fear simply wasn't part of his human constitution.

To call him a human rights activist may be correct, but it would be an understatement. With his life so much on the line you could hardly call him anything without the words, "passion" and "crusader."

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Jean Leopold Dominique, broadcaster
A second return from exile.
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