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Radio-Free Haiti 

Jonathan Demme's documentary brings a joyful revolutionary to the screen.

One man can make a difference.
  • One man can make a difference.
Some people seem to have been born under an urgent, righteous star. Haitian radio pioneer and human-rights activist Jean Dominique was one, 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 an inspiring, moving film, a tribute to a man who brought critical news to the people of Haiti, even as a series of dictatorships sought to shut him down.

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. In 1968, he purchased the lease of Radio Haiti Inter, Haiti's oldest radio station, where he sought to improve the lives of his countrymen in another way.

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." Dominique sought nothing more (or less) than the enactment of democracy and the observance of human rights in Haiti; this was enough to make him a target of the military police under Papa and Baby Docs Duvalier. Time after time, the police lined up in front of the station and fired bullets; if he could, Dominique broadcast the event as it was happening.

When the violence drove him into exile in New York, he continued to promote the cause of democracy in Haiti, appearing on Charlie Rose and pleading for the CIA to withdraw its support of the oppressive regime. In 1986, when he arrived in Port-Au-Prince after six years abroad, he was greeted by 60,000 joyous countrymen.

Despite a lifetime of confronting oppressive forces, Dominique was 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 approaching 70, his body is gleaming with health, his eyes wide open with the benign ferocity of his mission. "You cannot kill truth," he says with utter assurance.

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.

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