Most faces can simply be described, but some (like Jean Dominique’s) need explaining. When did the lips shrink away, and the light brown skin start clinging to the bones? Maybe it happened during his prison term in the 1950s, when the young Dominique got in trouble for helping Haitian peasants improve their crops. Six months of Papa Doc Duvalier’s hospitality might give any man that death’s-head look. But then, how did the death’s head grow such strong, wide upper teeth? They make Dominique’s frequent smiles look like flashes of a guillotine blade, as if his student years in France had taught him the retributive use of wit. France taught him a love of film, too–he founded Haiti’s first cinema club, in the early 1960s, and encouraged the development of indigenous film production–which may help account for his actorly exuberance. He comically scrunches his long, sharp nose, to show he’s sniffing the winds of change. He lifts his chin and demonstrates a dry, ironic kreyòl hum, then adds, “That ‘mm-hmm’ has three Macoutes in it.”
For some thirty years, as the owner, director and leading voice of Radio Haiti, Jean Dominique used his theatricality, wit, eloquence and anger to inform and inspire Haiti’s poor. “Risky business,” as he says more than once, shaking his head, in Jonathan Demme’s first-rate documentary The Agronomist. The fallout from those risks (which included two periods in exile) goes a long way toward explaining how Dominique got that fleshless face, and why it holds your eyes like Zurbarán’s St. Francis. You understand why he looked cadaverous long before April 3, 2000, when an assassin cut him down.
Demme began interviewing Dominique in New York City in 1993, during his second exile. (Among the ironies that brought out the guillotine smile: The United States both put him to flight and gave him refuge.) Demme went on to conduct interviews in Haiti with Michèle Montas (Dominique’s wife and radio partner) and others in their circle, record key events (including, ultimately, the funeral) and assemble footage from many sources and periods, going back to the 1930s. So you can watch The Agronomist as a unified work, which brings together a dozen years of Demme’s filmmaking, or, just as well, as one result among several from his long-running engagement with the Haitian people. I prefer the latter view. It fits better with the ongoingness of the film, which seems to come (thanks to Demme’s finesse) straight from the spirit of Dominique and Montas themselves.
This isn’t to deny that Demme has shaped the documentary, and even rounded it. The film begins and ends with the sound of Dominique’s cutting, mocking voice, as he gives the station identification for Radio Haiti. A sense of loss hovers over these moments: The first images are of the studio, with Dominique gone, while the last are of the countryside he’d come from, and of a photograph of the smooth-faced boy he’d once been. In between these absences, though, the film is full, with Demme piecing together a narrative that expertly combines the lives of Dominique and Montas with the political history of Haiti from the 1930s until now. Some pieces of information are irresistibly strange–for example, the fact that Montas is a former homecoming queen of the University of Maine; and others (details of the US role in Haiti) prove to be distressingly familiar, once Demme usefully refreshes your memory of them. Throughout, Demme does an exemplary job: never burdening the story (except possibly with the soundtrack music), never editorializing on his own behalf and never interfering with the personalities of his two main subjects.
Why would he have interfered? In their courage, strength, intelligence and humor, Dominique and Montas would be gifts to any filmmaker–and never more so than in the stunning sequence toward the end, when Montas broadcasts from Radio Haiti for the first time since her husband’s death. She spins out an allegory for her listeners, telling them that Dominique’s opponents are fools if they think they’ve killed him, since he was known to have carried an invisibility powder and has been spotted just recently in the country, dressed in that unmistakable black leather cap, packing tobacco into his pipe with that characteristic gesture. “Bonjour, Jean,” she says into the microphone, concluding a heart-stopping performance–at which point, Demme cuts to footage of Dominique driving through Port-au-Prince, as if he really were still alive, and still talking in a brilliant performance of his own. There are many good things to say about The Agronomist–but the best is that it plays as if Dominique and Montas were the authors.