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.
Compare Dominique, if you will, with the much discussed Super Size Me. The Haitian is brilliant, fiery and spare. The Americans (most of them) are uninformed, vague and very, very fat. The bloating is so awful, in fact, that you might be tempted to imagine it as a self-inflicted curse–as if, by siphoning off another people’s liberty and sustenance, the Americans had sucked up their flesh, too.
I suspect such cartoonish irony would have seemed too simple to Dominique. I know it’s too easy for Spurlock, who devotes Super Size Me to debunking this very notion of obesity as the failing of a morally slack nation. The subject of his documentary is the American food industry, which increases its profits and political influence, he argues, by relentlessly pushing products that are unhealthy, addictive and packaged in absurdly large portions. The primary target of his attack is the McDonald’s corporation: the most ubiquitous arm of the industry, and the one that is perhaps most successful at pulling in children. His method is self-sacrifice. For the entire month of February 2003, Spurlock ate nothing but McDonald’s food, three meals a day. Super Size Me is the story of how the company did just that.
A muckraking performance polemic–part of it in the Upton Sinclair tradition, and part in the more recent mold of Michael Moore–Super Size Me takes as its starting point the recent, widely derided lawsuit filed on behalf of two adolescent girls, who wanted McDonald’s to pay damages for making them fat. The common-sense reply to their complaint was that no one had forced them to eat at McDonald’s, or to eat so much. Spurlock’s rejoinder is that these girls were born into a world with powerful institutions, economic relationships and tools of persuasion, all of which are currently focused on getting that Big Mac down a kid’s throat, followed by half a pound of fries and thirty-two ounces of caffeinated sugar water. To make the case, Spurlock brings his camera into school cafeterias that have been taken over, very lucratively, by the fast-food business, so that students routinely eat a lunch of fried sweets. He interviews a lively group of first graders, all of whom can recognize the face of Ronald McDonald but are stumped when shown a picture of Jesus. He talks with nutritionists at New York University about the addictive properties of fast food, and shows you memorable footage of the gastric bypass procedure undergone by one Bruce Howlett, whose soda-pop habit came close to costing him his life.
But enough of that. You want to know about Spurlock, and what happened to him after twenty-eight days of choking down Egg McMuffins and Chicken McNuggets. A tall, athletic man in his 30s, with receding ginger hair and an inverted U of a mustache, Spurlock started the month with a weight of 185 pounds and a serum cholesterol level of 168 and finished weighing 210, with a cholesterol reading of 230. And that’s not the worst. One of the three physicians who monitored him during the experiment, Dr. Daryl Isaacs, pleaded with him on the twenty-first day to stop, since his blood work showed he was doing the sort of damage that alcoholics inflict on themselves on a binge. “The results for your liver,” Isaacs said, “are obscene beyond anything I would have thought.” Looking on appalled, and offering comic relief, is Spurlock’s girlfriend, Alexandra Jamieson, who makes her living as a vegan chef.
Spurlock, for his part, makes a living as a producer and director of commercials and music videos, a trade that contributes to the zippy, wise-guy tone of this first feature-length film. His image-making is so versatile that it can almost seem scattershot; his on-screen persona so cocky that you may be glad when he turns wan with triglycerides, since then he backs off for a minute. His method of argument sometimes veers dangerously toward the associative, and his picture quality reminds you that video-to-film transfer has not yet been perfected.
And so what? Spurlock has made something challenging and new out of the American love of excess. He has turned our appetites into a tool of political education. Maybe you cringe at that last phrase; I often do. But I know I laughed and shuddered at the gross-out comedy of Super Size Me and then found myself discussing it compulsively, starting at home. Where had I been, my 5-year-old asked. When I explained, he shouted angrily, “Daddy, that movie doesn’t know what it’s talking about! McDonald’s is the healthiest food there is!”
Julie Bertuccelli’s first feature, Since Otar Left…, is so beautifully sustained in mood, so finely balanced in acting and storytelling, that I’m almost afraid to add words to the experience. The film puts me in mind of a snowflake, which will be destroyed the moment you touch it. Then again, this snowflake may be tougher than average, since it’s Georgian. Let me risk this much:
In a small, book-crammed apartment in Tbilisi live three generations of women: the diminutively imperious grandmother, Eka (Esther Gorintin), the perpetually exasperated, middle-aged daughter, Marina (Nino Khomassouridze) and sweet-faced, studious young Ada (Dinara Droukarova), who like so many grandchildren skips a generation in her familial allegiance. Communication is tenuous. Marina counters Eka’s television by turning on the radio, which prompts Ada to play a cassette tape at high volume. Peace returns only with the latest of Tbilisi’s frequent power outages, or when a telephone call comes from Paris. There, Eka’s deeply beloved son Otar has been living as an undocumented construction worker, which gives him a better life than he’d have as a medical doctor in post-Soviet Georgia.
When Otar dies in an accident, Marina and Ada clash over whether to tell Eka, then take up a prolonged deception, with young Ada using her expertise in French to fake a series of letters. Of course, this is not the only form of lying that goes on in Tbilisi, nor the only misuse of skill and knowledge. What ensues is a dry-eyed comedy of disillusionment, perfect in plot and tone, with the amazing 90-year-old Esther Gorintin dominating a trio of marvelous performances. Since Otar Left… is not to be missed.