Tyranny Killed the Radio Star

Jonathan Demme on 'The Agronomist'

Jonathan Demme
Jonathan Demme

[Ed. note: The following has been taken from "The Passion of the Journalist: Jonathan Demme on The Agronomist, His Tribute to Haiti's Bravest Voice for Democracy."] When Jonathan Demme visited Haiti in the mid-Eighties seeking to feed his "obsession" with the country's art, he had no idea that he would leave with another one. The filmmaker, whose work has been alternately tinged and gripped with the political since the Seventies, was swept up in the Haitian citizenry's passion for even the prospect of democracy, as dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier had been exiled just a year before. When he returned to undertake a documentary called Haiti: Dreams of Democracy, Demme's second obsession would intensify after briefly meeting Jean Dominique, a radio journalist whose charisma and conviction made for such a particularly formidable chemistry that it would ultimately cost him his life. The Agronomist is, at its best, a tribute to Dominique – a man who graduated with an education in crop science, founded the Haitian film society that led to the country's first released film, and bravely made his way with words as a freedom fighter preaching peace and human rights – while also serving as timely primer on Haiti, a country that when not subject to the whims of the United States is subject to despotic rule. The film began in 1991, after the democratically elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide had been toppled for the first time. Dominique had been exiled to New York City, where Demme lives. They would meet every month or two for a couple of hours and became close friends.

Austin Chronicle: As admirable and as obviously just as his causes were, there's a sense in watching the film that Jean Dominique is something of an absolutist. His saying that he has an "unquenchable faith as a militant for true change," for instance. The interview with Aristide, which seemed counterproductive. Was he blinded by his crusade? Was he unwilling or unable to compromise?

Jean Dominique
Jean Dominique

Jonathan Demme: I didn't get the sense ... let me put it this way: As I look at the film, I see a guy who might be slightly mad, truly – not in a bad way – and a guy who could be reasonably described as somewhat quixotic. And I didn't get that in the room with Jean. It's sort of only when I see bites of Jean abstracted into a film that tells his story that I go "hmm ... Jean was kind of out there." Because he was so passionate about this. This was his life. He could party, he could smoke a great pipe, he could drink great wine, have a love of film and all of this other stuff, but this was what it was all about for him.

AC: And this – ?

JD: I think a desire to have an impact somehow on behalf of the Haitian people. He was passionate about his adopted profession, and I felt that, as a journalist, he was rabid to provoke the truth, to discover the truth in his analysis of whatever situation was at hand. To uncover and reveal the truth from whomever he was interviewing. The incredible thing about that little snippet we have of his interview with Aristide. ... That was kind of an apocryphal interview, because they had been really, really, really close. Aristide called Jean "papa." I knew Aristide at the time quite well, so I heard Aristide talk about Jean and Jean talk about Aristide. I saw them together. Aristide adored Jean and saw him as a seer to whom he could really turn to. You know, when Harry Belafonte, I read somewhere in Parting the Waters, when Martin Luther King Jr. wanted to get the real no-shit lowdown skinny on anything pertinent to himself or the movement, he would meet Harry Belafonte, and Belafonte would tell it like it is. I think that Jean was very much Aristide's Belafonte.

But when Jean had the audacity – the naive audacity – to put Aristide on the spot the way he did in that watershed interview, it revealed a couple of things: First of all, it provided complete rupture to their relationship, forever. That was it. But it also revealed just the chasm that occurred in Aristide between the idealist that he entered politics as and the platitude-mouthing politician that he became. end story

The Agronomist, which screened during SXSW Film 04, opens in Austin on Friday, June 4. For a review and showtimes, see Film listings.

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Jonathan Demme, The Agronomist, Jean Dominique

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