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Agronomist, The  (2003)


Rating: NR

Distributor: New Line Home Entertainment

Release Date: June 7, 2005
Review posted: June 13, 2005


Reviewed by Dylan Grant




The Agronomist tells the story of Haitian national hero, journalist, and freedom fighter Jean Dominique, whom Demme first met and filmed in 1986.  As owner and operator of his nation’s oldest and only free radio station, Dominique was frequently at odds with his country’s various repressive governments and spent much of the 80s and early 90s in exile in New York, where Demme continued to interview him over the years.  Having fought tirelessly against his country’s overwhelming injustice, oppression and poverty, it was Dominique’s shocking and still-unsolved assassination in April of 2000 that gave the director the impetus to assemble more than a decades worth of material into a celebration of this dynamic man and his legacy.




There is an interesting moment in The Agronomist where one of Jean Dominique’s sisters – actually, his oldest sister – talks about the troubles young Jean was having in acquiring land.  Dominique was at the time an aspiring agronomist, and he was unable to get the land he needed to practice.  “He was an agronomist without any land,” she says, “and that is the story of his life.”


Dominique’s story is the story of Haiti itself.  As a young boy, he watched the U.S Marines occupy his country.  Over the course of his life he witnessed the reigns of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, who declared himself president for life at 19, a right wing military junta, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and others.  As a boy, Dominique’s father, who always told him not to even look at the Marines, gave him the history of Haiti, and drummed into his son the fact that he was Haitian and nothing else.  We get the back-story of the country, its rule by Napoleon, which the Haitians overthrew in a revolution, and its eventual occupation by the United States.  Haiti, like so many other countries, was never allowed to flourish on its own.  As a boy, Dominique traveled around Haiti and the Dominican Republic with his father, seeing the land and meeting the people.


He studied in France, where he developed an interest in film.  When films are made right, said Dominique, “the grammar of the film is a political act.”  An interesting statement, made all the more so by the film we are watching.  He returned to Haiti and set to work on a documentary that became the first film to be made in Haiti, by a Haitian.  Dominique started a cinema club, and he and his friends made films they thought were important.  Jean’s cinema club was not long for the world.  He made a film that compared Duvalier’s prison to Hitler’s concentration camps, and his club was banned.  Dominique was sent to prison for six months.


It is odd to see the way Dominique tells his story.  That is, with much humor.  He talks about being sent to prison or having his radio station shot up by the military, and he always talks about it with a smile.  Demme interviewed Dominique over the course of years, and the smile never fades.


When he was released from prison, Dominique landed at Radio Haiti, an essentially free radio station – as much as is possible in Haiti – where they still had to be careful about what they said.  Dominique describes the kind of Creole language broadcasts, even affecting some vocal impressions that he knew spoke to the peasants of the country, his true target audience, without inciting the government.


Despite his populist voice, Dominique was not above criticism.  When a young priest named Jean-Bertrand Aristide becomes a presidential candidate, Dominique backs him and is called a traitor for it.  His listeners did not see that Dominique’s position was not about Aristide or anyone else; it was about the Haitian people having a voice, the opportunity to participate, which had never been available to them before.


Francois Duvalier died suddenly, and Baby Doc assumed power.  Dominique fled the country for another island, Manhattan, where he would stay off and on for a total of about six years.  After years of turmoil, the fleeing of Baby Doc, the overthrowing of the newly elected Aristide government by a U.S.-backed military regime, to the reinstallation of Aristide, Dominique finally returned to Haiti in the mid-90s.  He expected a quiet reception and was greeted like a returning hero.


Demme accumulated hours of footage over the years, as he interviewed Dominique at various points in his life, and he takes the best possible track in constructing the film.  The footage is assembled to that Dominique tells his own story; we get his history and Haitian history as he saw it.  In the end, after Dominique is killed, the footage is woven together with Jean’s widow reading what amounts to an on-air eulogy, making it seem that Dominique is not really dead, but out among the people, doing what he always did.  In a way, he is.


Haiti is right in the back yard of the United States yet little seems to be known about the country, its tragic history, even our own involvement in that land.  The Agronomist gives us an inside look through the eyes of one of the country’s best well known, most loved figures.  Dominique’s is a dynamic story, and finally it is here for us to experience.




The Agronomist is presented in a fullscreen format.  The transfer is quite good, especially considering the age of some of the archival footage.  Everything has been cleaned up and given the best possible presentation.




This DVD offers language tracks in English and French, both in 2.0 Stereo Surround.  The presentation is decent, free of any defects.  This documentary does not have a demanding soundtrack, but what we have is quite good.




None, which is a shame.  A commentary by Demme would have been nice.




The Agronomist is what every film aspires to be: a good story, well told.  Dominique’s story is the story of Haiti itself, and he tells it with a startling humor.  This disc offers nothing in the way of bonus material, which is a shame considering what a labor of love it seems to have been.  Even so, the film is exceptional, and more than worthy of watching.




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