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Radio Free Haiti

Jonathan Demme brings a joyful revolutionary to the screen.

Every once in a while, you encounter a person who seems to have been born under an urgent, righteous star, a person who is both a fiery activist lit with the passion of his convictions and a dramatic storyteller who naturally occupies a place in the public eye. When this person enters a room, he doesn't draw attention away from others and toward himself; instead, he infuses the entire place and everyone in it with the energy to stand up against violence and oppression and to seek justice. In fact, after a few moments with him, you might wonder how you can spend your time doing anything else.

Haitian radio pioneer and human-rights activist Jean Léopold Dominique was just such a person, and The Agronomist, a documentary from director Jonathan Demme, captures both his energized essence and the incredible breadth of his influence in his native country. It is a moving film, a tribute to a man who brought critical news and information to the people of Haiti even as a series of dictatorships sought violently to shut him down. Dominique was an exceptional, incredibly alive person -- his face charts a remarkable display of expressions -- and it's a pleasure to spend ninety minutes in his company. (The Agronomist plays at Starz FilmCenter on Wednesday, April 28, as part of the Denver Pan African Film Festival; see page 44 for details. The film will return to Starz on May 28 for a one-week run.)

Trained as an agronomist, Dominique began his career in the Haitian countryside, attempting to better the lives of the agricultural majority by improving their crops. His destiny, however, lay elsewhere. In 1968, he purchased the lease of Radio Haiti Inter, Haiti's oldest radio station, in an effort to improve the lives of his countrymen in another way -- by informing them and inspiring them to agitate for their rights.

At the time, radio was not a medium for news; it was solely a source of entertainment. Dominique set about to change that. He had long since been politicized, both by his anti-occupation father and by his studies in France, where the world of cinema had opened his eyes to the possibilities for enacting social change. So he used the station to broadcast news -- in Haitian Creole, the language of the people, as opposed to the French understood only by elites. For the first time, the people of Haiti (80 percent of whom were illiterate) received regular information about what was happening in their country, including reports of the violence perpetrated by whatever dictatorship happened to be in power at the time.

It was a revolutionary act. As Dominique puts it, "Every [piece of] information . . .was seen by the power as opposition." He sought nothing more (or less) than the enactment of democracy and the observance of human rights in Haiti; this stance was enough to render him a revolutionary and a target of the military police under dictators François "Papa Doc" and Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. Time after time, the police lined up in front of the radio station and fired bullets; whenever possible, Dominique broadcast the event as it was happening.

Sometimes, however, the violence drove him out of Haiti and into exile in New York, where he continued to promote the cause of democracy in his country, appearing on The Charlie Rose Show and pleading for the CIA to withdraw its support of the oppressive regime. However, as soon as he felt it was safe enough, he returned to pick up where he had left off, rebuilding his demolished station with donations from listeners. In 1986, when he arrived in Port-au-Prince after six years abroad, he was greeted by 60,000 joyous countrymen.

"Joy" is a good word for Dominique, because despite a lifetime of confronting oppressive forces that never seemed to change, he was indubitably alive with joy. In the film, he recounts dramatic stories of resistance and solidarity with sparkling eyes and a huge grin. After speaking about his six-month imprisonment, he laughs merrily, as though acknowledging that a little jail time could hardly be expected to stop him. Even at 69, his body gleams with health, his eyes wide open with the benign ferocity of his mission. "You cannot kill truth," he says with utter assurance.

Dominique's pleasure in life was no doubt augmented by a loving and supportive romantic partnership. He fell in love with Michèle Montas, a highly educated, outspoken activist in her own right, not long after purchasing the radio station. Together they broadcast the news, establishing the institution of Radio Haiti Inter as a dynamic couple. They remained together through every exile and return. Dominique's family, too, is nothing if not articulate: When framing a story from their childhood, his older sister likens herself to the tragic Greek heroine Antigone.

Though it comes at a time of yet more turmoil in Haiti, and though its subject intersects with several decades of Haitian history, The Agronomist is neither a political tract nor a history of politics in Haiti. It is a biography of a single man, whose light was so bright that it shone over an entire country, even (and especially) in the face of the darkness that wished to extinguish it. One hopes that Demme's film will bring the power of Dominique's voice and life to as many people in this country as possible.

 
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