While many new documentaries try to charm audiences with droll
humor, quirky subjects or a commitment to entertain that can
overshadow the subject matter, Jonathan Demme’s “The
Agronomist” is refreshing in its sincerity. Demme portrays
the life and ideas of a man he respects — Haitian radio
journalist and human rights activist Jean Dominique — and
delivers a straight-up portrait that is both informative and
entertaining.

The title actually refers to Dominique’s original
profession, though Dominique’s commitment to improving plant
life and cultivation methods helps mold his social conscience.
Demme chronicals Dominique’s struggle for the empowerment of
the people, the continual rebuilding of Radio Haiti Inter —
Dominique’s station and the first news-based radio —
and Dominique’s perspectives on the role of government and
the media — the Haitian people relying on film and radio for
their education, 80 percent of them being illiterate.

The film has a self-reflexive importance as Dominique waxes
philosophical on the role of cinema. He speaks of absorbing Fellini
and Godard while in Europe — vintage posters of “La
Strada” and “A bout de souffle” flash on the
screen — and on the subversive power of film, a tool he
utilizes by encouraging films grounded in realism written and
directed by Haitians. This affirmation of the power of cinema gives
Demme’s own project some weight — hoping to illicit a
response from its American audience on America’s involvement
in international affairs.

Demme breaks away from his better-known Hollywood-film style
(“Silence of the Lambs”) and goes for a more bare-bones
guerrilla filmmaking approach, toting his handheld camera about and
shooting whatever footage he can get for over a decade. Interviews
Demme conducted are mixed with montages of grainy, older footage
from news clips or Haitian films. The montages gain more urgency
and power from an energetic score by Wyclef Jean.

Had Dominique not exuded so much charisma, Demme’s
straight-forward approach may have proved dull. Fortunately,
Dominique speaks with both exuberance and gravitas. Everything
about his presence is genuine — his wide, crooked-teethed
smile, his emphatic hand gestures, and the way his expressive
eyebrows show that he cares about what he says. Instead of speaking
of his struggles with gravity, he looks on them with a wry sense of
humor — after stating that he was imprisoned for six months
because of his controversial radio show, he bursts into
laughter.

Though the film ends with Dominique’s assassination in
2000, Dominique’s optimism prevails throughout. As his wife
proclaims in Radio Haiti’s return after his death,
“Jean Dominique is not dead.” Demme does a wonderful
job in illustrating just that.

Rating:  4 out of 5 stars.

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