Writing by Megan Scanlon. Megan works at the American University of Beirut. She has written for the DOC NYC blog and the Journal of Community Engagement and Scholarship. Megan is a volunteer at the Bronx Documentary Center where she contributes to documentary programming. Follow her on instagram and twitter @
Stranger Than Fiction headed into week three of its Jonathan Demme retrospective last Tuesday, welcoming another packed house for the director’s 2003 film, The Agronomist.
The Agronomist tells the story of Jean Dominique, a journalist whose heart beat for Haiti. As a child, Dominique traveled the country with his father, who wanted him to get to know the people of Haiti. On his son’s identity, his father was clear: “You are not French, British, you are not American, you are Haitian.” On these trips Dominique fell in love with the people, the peasants who worked the land. Inspired, he studied in France to become an agronomist agriculturalist, and returned to Haiti to work with farmers he knew could take care of themselves. A lover of cinema, he also wanted to bring national cinema to Haiti. Films that showed challenges and rebellion were not viewed favorably and in 1965 the Haitian dictatorship permanently banned the cinema club. Not one to be deterred, Dominque breathed new life into Radio Haiti when he purchased it in 1968. The first independent radio station on the airwaves, Radio Haiti broadcasted in Creole and aired local and international news, unlike the government owned stations that broadcasted exclusively in French. For the poor, illiterate, and Voodoo practicing population, Radio Haiti was an informational lighthouse drawing attention to the hegemonic forces that threatened not just to erode, but engulf the peasants’ way of life. Dominque’s role as anchor was literal as he cultivated strength and support for his listeners. An electric storyteller, beyond the power of his words was the power of his delivery. Together, the passion in his prose was fiery, incisive, and uncontainable. His words resounded for those not given a voice, a choice, and when stories of overthrown dictatorships by oppressed citizens in Iran and Nicaragua were shared, Haitians were quick to understand.
The Agronomist is told through footage of Dominique in Haiti and home interviews conducted by Demme, the result of Dominique being in exile three times. Exile because of propped up dictatorships funded by the CIA. Exile because the Haitian tyrannical ruling class could not bear its bloated self-importance being punctured. Exile because of coups designed to break the backbone of the Haitian people. Exile because Jean and his wife, partner, and fellow journalist Michele Montas challenged corruption and oppression in the country at every turn. Exile because freedom of the press got people tortured, beaten to a pulp, and killed. Exile for helping and providing media coverage on the roadblocks set up by Haitian farmers to thwart U.S. sugar and ethanol imports from entering further into Haiti. These imports, under the leadership of former President Bill Clinton, wrecked local economies, as ethanol imports from the U.S. engulfed production of the Haitian version of alcohol called clairin, which is made from sugarcane. Exiled and exiled and exiled until in 2000 he was assassinated.
During one of Dominique’s second return to Haiti, he was met at the airport by 60,000 Haitians who had gathered from all over the country. Folks who had nothing, who gathered what they could to catch sight of the man who never stopped fighting for his country. Citizens who donated 20 cents so they could contribute to free radio. As Dominique says in the film, “The peasants wanted to vote: freely, independently, proudly.” On democracy and participation in their own affairs, Dominique said, “to feel linked intricately with millions of people who can feel one second, one wonderful second of being together and going forward together—I think it’s the most wonderful experience of my life.”
In the post screening Q&A with Michelle Montas and Demme, Demme spoke of his first visit to Haiti in 1986. Bearing witness to all the overwhelming obstacles in Haiti’s path, he reflected on Haiti’s spirit for democracy. “We in America especially at this moment in time–have so much to learn from the Haitian people. Where is our authentic, pure, beautiful response for democracy as a vehicle for making lives better for the next generation? America and all over the world can be inspired by Haiti. Haiti to me is the canary in the cage–all the stuff that is going on in Haiti now, the ecological challenges, the oppression, the refugees, the way the Haitian people are with such tremendous spirit and strength and tenacity–I hope the rest of the world can greet all these challenges with the same degree of excellence as the Haitian people.”
In response to an audience member who asked, “What can we do to help?” Montas directed the crowd to www.radiohaitilives.com in which archives were given to Duke University on Michele’s condition that everything went back up on the air. The focus on the enduring plight of the Haitian people is of course, magnified by Hurricane Matthew, and Montas handed out flyers with information leading the audience to reliable local organizations* with direct access to those who need it most and where donations are not lost in overhead costs. “We can rebuild the southern part of Haiti if you help. It’s not about giving people money, it’s about helping people rebuild their own lives. They can do it themselves.”
*The suggested organizations