As the nation of Haiti experiences unimaginable devastation we lookback at a portrait of the country and one of its favourite sons.
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27 Jan 2010 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 6 Nov 2012 - 3:30 PM

The first time you watch Demme's documentary, The Agronomist you will cry in disbelief – no scratch that – every time you watch it you will be profoundly moved; especially now, as the nation continues to count its dead and begins the gargantuan task of rebuilding its homeland.

The masterful film is the story of the director of Radio Haiti Inter, Jean Leopold Dominique. It is also the story of the nation itself and the layers of political conspiracy that have impacted on the poorest people. Produced between 1993 and 2000, the documentary tracks film-lover Dominique's beginnings as an agronomist working with Haiti's rural poor, through to his championing of the cinema through to his 40-year career as director of the nation's first independent radio station.

The Agronomist begins in 1993, with Dominique in political exile in New York City (for the second time) due to his defiant independent broadcasting under military rule. Demme starts the film by asking Dominique if he has any doubt that Radio Haiti will return to the air. He answers, “Not a shadow of a doubt. Not a shadow. I am sure. I am positive. Jonathan, you cannot kill the truth. You cannot kill justice. You cannot kill what we are fighting for. Participation of the citizens through the community business. You cannot kill that.”

From such passionate beginnings our guide takes us through an unforgettable period of Haitian modern history. Dominique is at once persistent, dogged, dramatic and enraged and it is through his unique eyes that we witness a highly dramatic story of a nation, two United States' Presidents and a man who became a symbol for resistance and the power of freedom. Dominique's great-great grandfather helped defeat Napoleon's army at the Battle of Vertières, and he unequivocally embodies this revolutionary spirit and pride in his country.

The Agronomist is largely comprised of interviews and a considerable portion of the film is told through flashback. In Demme's hands this style is transformed into powerful oratory though the use of personal testimonials, recreations, archival video and audio footage. In The Agronomist the personal is highly political and thoroughly charged.

Dominique talks of how he first arrived at Radio Haiti for example, which Demme compares to parallel changes in the nation. As a young man Dominique spent six months in jail at the hands of one of the nation's many military dictatorships, this time under the rule of François Duvalier, known as “Papa Doc”. On Dominique's release, he travelled to France when he discovered that in “the grammar of the film is a political act.”

Dominique believed in the “great potential of a Haitian national cinema to benefit the Haitian people, of which 80 per cent were illiterate”. He returned to Haiti and formed “les cineastés haitiens reunis” (United Haitian Filmmakers). He was instrumental in mobilising intellectuals and writers to “get to work”. Inspired, Rassoul Labuchin wrote the frist Kreyòl-language screenplay, M'ap Palé Net (I Can't Shut Up), directed by Raphaël Stines in 1961.

Dominique's passion for cinema is only one small component of The Agronomist but it reminds us that one person's drive and dedication to principle can make a difference.

You can contribute funds to the Haitian Earthquake Appeal at the following sites, amongst others:
World Vision Australia; Oxfam; Unicef Australia