The Agronomist really started as a sleazy
kind of deception, a flimsy excuse for one guy–me–to get
to know another guy–Jean Dominique–a little bit.
Yes, when I called Jean upon his arrival in New York in the early nineties
to propose the idea of a documentary portrait of a journalist in exile
I really thought it was a good idea for a film. But the greater truth
was, I was seeking an opportunity to hang with Jean, to really get to
know a guy who I felt was one of the most intriguing, exciting people
I had ever come across.
Before New York, I had met Jean and his wife Michele Montas only once,
and then only briefly. In 1987 I visited Radio Haiti for about an hour
to film Jean and Michele delivering their morning editorial. We were
shooting Haiti, Dreams of Democracy then,
trying to capture the heart of the post-Duvalier democracy movement
and everyone we spoke with told us that if we didn’t include Radio
Haiti and Dominique, we wouldn’t have a film. We called, they
agreed to let us shoot, we did it (some of that material is included
in The Agronomist).
I found Jean to be brusque, all business, insanely professional and
focused, brilliant at the microphone.
So when Jean and Michele came to New York in the early nineties, I
pounced. “A docu portrait of a journalist in exile with a built
in happy ending–when the coup eventually toppled, as all coups
surely must, we could see the formerly exiled radioman back at his mic,
once again pushing for change via the airwaves.”
Jean wasn’t terribly interested. Wasn’t sure he’d
be very interesting, not sure if he had the patience, what if he devoted
some time to the possibility and suddenly got turned off or had to split?
But he was also an ardent cineaste and I think Jean was a little intrigued
by the Hollywood guy who also made documentaries in Haiti–and
seemed to care a lot about his country, so he agreed to try meeting
for a couple of video sessions to test the waters.
The idea was for Jean, who always had something to say, to hold forth
on camera about the current coup, the history of Haiti, his personal
life story and his views on anything he damn well felt like holding
forth on. From such content, I suggested, a portrait of a man and of
a country might emerge in an interesting and fresh way.
As Jean and I got to know each other better through these sit-downs,
the idea for a second project started to crystallize, and this one had
more evident appeal to Jean. We would create a one-man show, a performance
piece à la Spalding Gray, that could be called The
History of Haitian Cinema and, in my wildest dreams, would be
presented at the Public Theatre.
Jean would “lecture” the audience on this subject, sometimes
showing brief clips from the very few Haitian films that actually exist
(the title is ironic), but mainly describing (accompanied by dramatic
lighting and scoring) extraordinary scenes from Haitian history and
current events–the great moments of Haitian Cinema yet to be filmed.
Together with the Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat, we exhaustively researched
Haitian cinema, came up with an outline, and actually work-shopped the
piece with Jean on video over the course of several weeks with the help
of a student crew in a studio at Ramapo College in New Jersey. Some
of that material found its way into The
Then the coup was over, and as planned, a small group of us returned
with Jean and Michele to Haiti to film his triumphant return to the
airwaves. My primary goal had already been achieved–after spending
many hours together over a long period of time on this portrait project
and the History/Cinema project, Jean and I had indeed become great pals,
and I was thrilled to be going back to the radio station with him, whether
or not a film actually came out of any of this.
But the military had trashed the station in Jean’s absence and
it would be a long time before Radio Haiti would be up and running again.
So we gamely stuck around and filmed what we could–Jean inspecting
the facilities, Jean driving downtown to apply for a new permit, Jean
in consultation with the engineers, etc.
Finally, Jean took me aside and told me that my well-intentioned friends
and I, with our little cameras and our wireless microphones, were giving
him a huge pain in his ass. It was hard enough trying to rebuild the
station, but to have all these cameras and encouraging smiles at every
moment…to preserve our friendship, it all had to stop. I got it.
Besides, Jean said, he was not a very interesting subject for a film,
and even if he was, a portrait of Jean Dominique that focused on him
as a journalist would be entirely missing the point of who
he really was as a person. A man of the soil. A man of the countryside.
Maybe someday when Radio Haiti–and Haiti itself–were up
and running, then I could come back with my “little camera”
and we would go into the heart of the country, to the Artibonite Valley
where the rice and other crops are grown, and film Jean there, where
the real Jean Dominique exists. And that film would be called The
Agronomist, because that is what he really is.
I remember thinking at the time how poignant this self-image was: the
mercurial man of the world, poet/genius analyst of the microphone, crusader
for democracy in his beloved nation–and he likes to picture himself
as the country mouse, never more true to himself than when he’s
shooting the shit about rainfall and the next mango crop with the other
farm boys down in the boondocks.
We parted company friendship intact and our various projects on the
shelf, marked “archives.”
When we received news of Jean’s killing on April 1, 2000 everyone
who knew Jean, who cared about Haiti, was devastated. It seemed like
the final coup-de-grace to the effort to get Haiti moving forward again
since becoming hopelessly bogged down in the morass of political infighting
and international manipulation that defined the Haiti that evolved after
Aristide’s return in ’94.
Daniel Wolff proposed that the only positive thing we could do was
to finish our little film, to honor Jean’s spirit and the country
he so loved, by completing the work he had—however grudgingly—participated
So we went back to Haiti one month after the killing to shoot a different
version of the original idea for the film’s ending. Instead of
showing Jean back at the microphone after exile, we were showing Michele
Montas back at the microphone when Radio Haiti returned to the air thirty
days after Jean’s death.
And now Jean’s partner, Michele, would come forward and tell
us her story and Jean’s story. And we did sessions with Jean’s
sisters and daughter, hearing what they had to say about the guy.
And what emerged, to my amazement, delight and emotional wellbeing
was the portrait of…an agronomist! Jean had labeled himself
an agronomist, and I was bemused. But sure enough, as Jean’s sister
says in quoting their mom, Jean Dominique was an agronomist… “an
agronomist without land…”
It’s incredibly moving for me that our film actually does wind
up in the countryside as he said it must. Not just in the countryside,
where Jean’s ashes are scattered, but where we see his ashes floating
in the currents of his beloved Artibonite River…the man of the
soil, the country boy, literally becoming as one with the land.