From Thu Dec 4 09:45:07 2003
Date: Thu, 4 Dec 2003 07:41:01 -0600 (CST)
From: Bob Corbett <>
To: Haiti mailing list <>
Subject: 17501: (Chamberlain) The Agronomist (fwd)

From: Greg Chamberlain <>

A Defiant Passion for Truth

By Amy Stone, The Colombia Journalism Review, Nov-Dec 2003

The Agronomist
U.S. distribution by THINKFilm
The Agronomist will open in New York and Los
Angeles April 16

I tried to introduce information. Risky business. These are the words of Jean Léopold Dominique, the man whose Radio Haiti Inter was the first to broadcast in Creole, whose newscasts challenged the Duvalier regime and its successors, and whose passion, style, and wit captivated the filmmaker Jonathan Demme. Following a brief meeting in Haiti in 1987, Demme videotaped conversations with Jean Dominique in exile in New York during the ’90s. Demme, known for the Oscar-winning Silence of the Lambs, has caught the essence of the man: slim, intense, eloquent, pipe in hand, a fighter for human rights in Haiti.

Demme traces Jean Dominique’s life in the context of Haitian history—from his birth in 1931, when the U.S. Marines occupied his country, to the reign of terror of François Duvalier and his son, President for Life Jean-Claude Duvalier, to the rise of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the idealistic priest who became Haiti’s first democratically elected president, through his overthrow by a military coup, and to Aristide’s own undermining of democracy following his return to power.

The documentary catches much of Haiti’s intensity, with an original score by the hip-hop stars Wyclef Jean and Jerry Wonder Duplessis. It also offers marvelous coverage of family history; gut-wrenching U.S. Coast Guard footage of fleeing Haitians falling from unsafe boats and their agonizing return to Haiti; shots of crowds of Haiti’s poorest ecstatically welcoming Jean Dominique back from exile. Video of Radio Haiti itself moves from everyday scenes in the broadcast booth to the station’s outer walls, pockmarked by machine-gun holes above lush flowers.

When Demme first began filming, he thought he was making a documentary of an extraordinary man who became an agronomist to help his country’s impoverished farmers, who had been jailed for his support of Haiti’s underclass, who had helped create Haiti’s first films as an opening to political change, and who, after the Duvalier regime shut down his cinema club, in 1965, bought Radio Haiti, where he worked for a couple of years as a freelancer.

The documentary was to capture Jean Dominique’s passion for democracy for the Haitian people and the love story of the fearless journalist and his partner in work and marriage, Michèle Montas (Columbia J-School ’69). Demme anticipated a happy ending: Jean and Michèle’s return from a second exile to run Radio Haiti following President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s own return from exile.

But happy endings are scarce in Haiti. The outspoken journalist who survived both Papa Doc and Baby Doc was gunned down in April 2000 by hired killers believed to be in the pay of a senator in Aristide’s party.

Michèle Montas kept Radio Haiti going, opening each day’s broadcast with Bonjour, Jean. On the day of the station’s return, she began with her husband’s recorded voice: It’s 7 a.m. They try everything to gnaw at us; to bury us; to electrocute us; to drown us; to drain us. It’s been going on for more than fifty years. Is there a reason for it to stop? Yes one: Things must change in Haiti. For freedom of the press: Radio Haiti, at the service of the Haitian people. 1330 AM. 106 FM.

Although The Agronomist ends there, the story does not. Twenty months after Jean Dominique’s murder, Brignol Lindor, news director at Radio Echo 2000, was hacked to death by a machete-wielding mob from an organization known as Asleep in the Woods. In November 2002 a radio station that had covered a protest demanding Aristide’s resignation was set on fire. Last Christmas, Michèle Montas’s bodyguard was murdered; she has since closed the station and gone into exile in the U.S. Many of the most experienced journalists have fled the country. Louis Joinet, an independent expert on Haiti for the UN Commission on Human Rights, says there is fear that tomorrow, the only options for the critical journalist in Haiti will be self-censorship, exile, or death.

Aristide continues to claim that his government respects freedom of expression and protects members of the media. He hopes for restoration of direct U.S. aid to Haiti’s government, which was cut off following the suppression of opposition parties during elections three years ago. New legislative elections are tentatively scheduled for November, but the opposition parties are refusing to participate, and the U.S. says it won’t recognize the vote unless the Haitian government makes the country safe for democratic elections.

Meanwhile, those behind the murders of Jean Dominique and others go unpunished. Perhaps Demme’s documentary will provide the international pressure for justice, proving Jean Dominique right about the political power of film.