In the new documentary about his life, as in his whole career, Jean Dominique speaks for himself. The bulk of The Agronomist consists of the man alone, behind a desk or on a sofa, the camera lingering closely around his long face as he soliloquizes about politics, journalism, and oppression. It's a subtle but effective technique by director Jonathan Demme (Something Wild, The Silence of the Lambs) to lionize his longtime friend: Dominique is so singularly the focus of the narration-free The Agronomist that the man who starts out as a relatively obscure figure seems nothing less than an icon by the end.
It's a shooting style that also reflects both the intimacy and the cyclic nature of the relationship between subject and filmmaker. From 1991 to 2000, Demme visited Dominique repeatedly to document his subversive struggle—either in Haiti, when the political climate permitted it, or in New York, where Dominique was twice forced into exile. But Demme demonstrates the wisdom to keep his personal dealings out of The Agronomist, choosing instead to give Dominique's tragic story full play.
Born into Haiti's French-speaking elite, Dominique was educated in Paris, where he studied agronomy (the science of plant breeding), as well as film and its powers to radicalize audiences. Once home, and without land of his own to till, he began working at Radio Haiti. What follows are Dominique's recollections of his decades-long effort to transform a French-language music station into a beacon for Haiti's vast peasant population. His decisions proved revolutionary: broadcasting in the native Creole language and, as deftly as he could without alarming censors, bringing news to his illiterate listeners. His methods of subversion proved brilliant: To quietly capture the pitiless poverty of one peasant town, Dominique reported on a religious pilgrimage of its sickest and poorest; instead of exhorting directly against Haiti's longtime dictator, François Duvalier, he reported on the defeats of similar tyrants in Honduras and Nicaragua. In the end, Dominique's efforts to animate unrest proved disastrously successful, and Demme chronicles his friend's bitter fate without striking one maudlin note.
At times, The Agronomist's all-consuming focus on Dominique seems to come at the expense of insights that a broader view might have provided: Dominique's unlikely role as a privileged, European-bred leader of penniless blacks goes unexplored, for instance, as does his on-again/off-again support of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the nation's first democratically elected president. But as Haiti's future once again hangs in the balance, The Agronomist succeeds in hanging a human face on the country's ongoing sorrow, a sorrow that Dominique himself knew was greater than a single life.