Jean Dominique, a Haitian journalist who spent nearly all of his much-too-short life fighting for a better existence for himself and his countrymen, exudes charisma. The fierce passion he displays throughout Jonathan Demme's ragtag documentary The Agronomist fairly stirs the soul; to see Dominique hold forth on why Haiti deserves a taste of freedom is to witness but a glimmer of what perhaps drove revolutionaries such as Che Guevara. The almost animalistic hunger for the desire to have his voice heard is chill-inducing; Dominique most certainly puts his money where his mouth is, which makes for a riveting 90 minutes.
Demme (Silence of the Lambs, Stop Making Sense) first met Dominique in 1986 and continued to meet with and film the Haitian journalist and activist until his shocking and still mysterious assassination in April 2000 - their conversations, which make up the spine of Demme's film are laced with idealism and grand thoughts of triumphing over injustice. Dominique spent much of the Eighties and some of the Nineties as an exile living in New York, yearning to return home to his native land. As the owner and operator of Haiti's oldest and only free radio station, Dominique clashed frequently with the numerous repressive and militaristic governments occupying Haiti from the mid-Sixties until his untimely death.
While the film seems to be ostensibly about the struggles of one man against the crushing weight of oppression - which would make for admittedly depressing viewing - Demme's film is only tangentially about Dominique's ceaseless struggles with the Haitian government. It's a film equally interested in the people, color and flavor of Haiti, which is painted as a lush, exotic land full of warmth and people who find happiness where they can. The Agronomist is also a celebration of all that Dominique did manage to accomplish in his life - from introducing world cinema to Haiti to offering unbiased news reports, Dominique fought the powers that be and more or less smuggled in a taste of the world for the natives of his beloved home country.
The Agronomist is many things but most of all it's entertaining - Demme blends interview footage seamlessly with vintage material and stock footage to create a cinematic collage of Jean Dominique's life and work; it's a moving testament to the resiliency of the human spirit and the ability to overcome anything with determination and pride. It's one of the great films of 2004 and should appeal to doc fans and non-fans alike.
Offered in a 1.33 fullscreen transfer, The Agronomist, being as it's patched together from footage of varying quality, suffers from an array of problems throughout - video noise, softness, scratches and an occasionally digital look. That said, what's presented is probably the best this documentary could look and as such, is solid if unremarkable.
Much like the visuals, The Agronomist features a relatively lackluster Dolby 2.0 stereo mix that nevertheless manages to get much of the dialogue and indigenent music (including the Wyclef Jean-augmented soundtrack) across in acceptable fashion. Dominique's occasionally thick accent makes for tricky understanding at times, but the English subtitles often help translate what's being said (or sung) onscreen.
New Line didn't include any extras here - not even so much as a trailer.
Uplifting and engaging, Demme's thoughtful documentary is required viewing for anyone interested in an ersatz freedom fighter whose life, although cut short, still serves as inspiration for those carrying on. Easily recommended as a rental or even a blind buy for fans of intelligent, well-made cinematic portraits.