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With: Jean Dominique, Michèle Montas
Directed by: Jonathan Demme
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 90
Date: 09/04/2003

The Agronomist (2004)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Love and Haiti

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Like Gus Van Sant and Steven Soderbergh, director Jonathan Demme hasmanaged to keep a fascinating indie presence while dabbling inmainstream filmmaking.

One gets the impression that Demme loves working with the "A"-list actors and big budgets that pictures like The Silence of the Lambs, The Truth About Charlie and the upcoming The Manchurian Candidate afford him. But when he goes to sleep at night, he must be proudest of his "little" films: Stop Making Sense, Swimming to Cambodia, Cousin Bobby, Storefront Hitchcock and his extraordinary new film The Agronomist.

Though Demme approached the film's subject, Jean Dominique, with the same curiosity and enthusiasm he had for his other "performers," (Spalding Gray, Robyn Hitchcock, etc.) The Agronomist unexpectedly turns out to be a much more compelling and urgent film than anything else Demme has done.

Dominique (1931-2000) gained fame as a popular deejay on Haiti's only free radio station. He was the first to begin speaking the country's native tongue of Haitian Creole instead of French. He also supported free presidential elections and endorsed the controversial candidate Jean-Bertrand Aristide, whose election and subsequent overthrow caused Dominique to go into exile. When he returned, he became increasingly frustrated with politics and began speaking directly to the peasants, attempting to empower them with knowledge. He was shot down and killed in front of the station.

Demme bounces back and forth between his interviews with the intensely likable Dominique, who speaks with a thick accent and enunciates his English with extreme care. He has a huge, stained smile and gnarled, expressive hands that go with his trademark hat and pipe. We learn that Dominique was originally trained as an agronomist (one who studies the economics of land and farming), ran a cinema club and even made a couple of movies.

We also meet Dominique's widow, the equally passionate and powerful Michèle Montas, who joined him during his two exiles and took over her husband's radio show after his death. Demme incorporates news and stock footage, as well as footage from his two previous Haiti-themed documentaries, Haiti: Dreams of Democracy and Haiti: Killing the Dream. And energetic music from Wyclef Jean and Jerry "Wonder" Duplessis keeps things from getting too angry or frustrated.

Indeed, Demme could easily have used his film for a rallying cry, but instead celebrates the wonderful man who loved his country and tried to speak up about it. By ending with another radio show, this one featuring Montas playing a tape of her husband's final broadcast, the film becomes an ode to the joys of free speech rather than the corruption of power.

DVD Details: New Line's DVD comes in an anamorphic widescreen transfer with 2.0 stereo sound, optional Spanish subtitles and optional (partial) French and English subtitles.

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