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 The Agronomist

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 Agronomist too.

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. An agronomist.

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 in, permitted.

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.

 

Owner of Haiti's only free radio station, Haitian national hero and freedom fighter Jean Léopold Dominique clashed with his country's various repressive governments and spent much of the 1990s in exile in New York. Following the reinstatement of a democratically elected government, director Jonathan Demme filmed Dominique's triumphant return to Port-au-Prince in 1994. Dominique's still-unsolved assassination in 2000 moved Demme to assemble over a decade's worth of footage to create a testament to an indefatigable man and his legacy who thought of himself chiefly as a simple man of the countryside, an agronomist. Original music by Wyclef Jean.