At the same time that director Jonathan Demme was mounting the milestone anti-yuppie comedy, Something Wild (1986), the hilarious Mafia parody, Married to the Mob (1988), the breakthrough serial-killer thriller The Silence of the Lambs (1991), and the first mainstream-film attack on homophobia in the time of AIDS, Philadelphia (1993), he was slaking his thirst for unspoiled culture and liberation politics by plunging into all things Haitian.
Demme's previous documentaries about Haiti barely made it past the festival circuit. But The Agronomist, the story of an expert in the science of soil management who became a champion of Haiti's peasantry, has crashed into theaters as a masterpiece of personal filmmaking.
This heartfelt, excitingly complex, art-kissed documentary (now playing at the Charles) portrays Demme's late friend Jean Dominique, a Haitian agronomist turned crusading radio broadcaster, as a man who burns with the glory of free expression. What makes the movie emotionally overwhelming is that it filters the exultation and sadness of an entire country through the soul of a national hero. Dominique, a scion of his country's privileged class, dedicated his life to giving voice to people without a voice and thus uplifting his race - the human race.
Grabbing time to speak over the phone from outside his New York editing suite (where he's completing his remake of The Manchurian Candidate, due out July 30), Demme is up-front about his personal motivation for making The Agronomist. The first words out of his mouth are, "Jean Dominique was such a great guy!"
But Dominique's move from agronomy to broadcast journalism also galvanized Demme: "You have to appreciate the visionary nature of his choice to work in radio and create what could be the literature of illiterate people."
The director traces the roots of Dominique's audacity to his father "taking his little boy out of school to accompany him on trips so he can learn about the entire country. On those trips Jean learned not only to appreciate the land but also to love the people and try to make things better for them."
Staying off the soapbox
When The Agronomist depicts the Haitian ruling class' many ways of brutally manipulating farmers, the specifics always fit into sweeping historical forces - freedom and feudal repression wrestling for the fate of a country. Demme says that he and his lead editor, Lizi Gelber, agreed "that we had to be on guard against simply trying to 'raise consciousness' or educate. ... The best way to turn people off from becoming thoroughly engrossed in Jean Dominique was to get on a soapbox." Dominique's championing of the native Creole tongue hits home because Dominique's demonstration of the dialect's hems, haws and guttural intonations brings out the high theater of his personality.
Though exiled twice - once in 1980, under the dictatorship of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, and once in 1991, after the coup that ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide - Dominique had the spine to keep returning to Haiti for one righteous battle after another. Up to the end, he didn't shy from attacking even former friends like Aristide when he saw them becoming corrupt.
During Dominique's '90s exile, Demme began interviewing him in New York. The movie was going to be the upbeat tale of a fighter for democracy and peasants' rights living to see his dreams fulfilled. But on April 3, 2000, Dominique was assassinated.
The finished movie is far more stirring than mournful. Its power comes partly from how surely Demme prepares you for the courage of Dominique's wife, Michele Montas, the revolutionary's partner in every way and the second hero of this picture (she too pursued causes instead of privilege). The movie climaxes a month after the killing. From the booth of Dominique's station, Radio Haiti Inter, Michele declares that Haitian magic has shielded her husband and he is not dead.
"Can you see how shaky my hands were when I was filming that?" Demme asks me. "I didn't know what her text was going to be. Part of going down there to finish the film had to do with me acting out my grief and loss. ... Her going back on the air provided me with a sense of purpose."
Intricate and rhythmic
Dominique does seem to live on - his words never stop resonating in your head. Both in interviews and snatches of his work, he delivers beats as seductive as the film's Wyclef Jean-Jerry Duplessis score. At one point, the soundtrack spills over with Dominique's commentary on an 8-day religious festival at the rural town of Saut D'Eau. The "crazed festivities" blend elements of Catholicism and voodoo as pilgrims bathe, gyrate and pray at a waterfall near a spot where the Virgin Mary's image is said to have been seen in the 19th century. Dominique improvises about "the tragedy and terror of a people awakened with eyes open, wide open" while men and women caught up in ecstatic rites fill Demme's screen.
"Have you ever heard anything else like that on the air?" Demme asks, with a thrill in his voice. "It's jazz!"
How that sequence came about suggests the intricacy of the stitch-work behind this "seamless" documentary. It includes footage of the Saut D'Eau "mud rituals" from a French-Canadian documentary and a couple of shots from a National Geographic film. But it's Gelber's rhythmic editing and the tumultuous passion of Dominique's talk that make the sequence in The Agronomist extraordinary. "An invisible wall surrounding everyone permits all to talk about their lives without fear, to scream their prayers to the Virgin, to the African Gods, to the saints, to the angels, beseeching miracles," says Dominique. "What Jean does in that stretch is jazz," repeats Demme, still dumbfounded.
That sequence also says a lot about Demme's love for Haiti and for Dominique. The director first became intrigued with Haitian culture at a Manhattan store called Haitian Corner. When he visited Haiti in 1986, he recalls, "I instantly fell in love with the country, the music, the art and the religion. But I also fell in love with the people and their rampant aspiration for positive change."
Film in common
Long known as one of American movie's great democrats for the way even modest characters shine in films like Citizens Band (1977) and Melvin and Howard (1980), Demme was not a conspicuously political filmmaker before he went to Haiti. He now says "My experience getting to know Haiti was my textbook for learning the way the world really runs. Why is there widespread illiteracy? Well, the ruling class doesn't want peasants or people earning a sub-minimum wage getting highfalutin' ideas in their head. That's why in Haiti the wealthy went to private schools where they were taught in French, and there were zero state-run schools for everyone else."
Before researching this movie, Demme didn't know that he and Dominique shared an obsession for the cinema: "I had no idea he was such an ardent cineaste, with such an intense drive to create an indigenous cinema for Haiti." Dominique started the first film club in Haiti at the French Institute in Port Au Prince, showcasing movies like Fellini's La Strada - the story of a traveling strong man (Anthony Quinn) who abuses a slow peasant girl (Giulietta Masina). Dominique says that watching La Strada, a viewer senses that it's a blow against "the black part of life" even if it doesn't mention fascism. And Demme embraces Dominique's social philosophy of movies: "if you show a humanist film it will make a political statement, whether overt or implicit, just by the way the people within it behave." (The film club closed when authorities realized that viewers could recognize the similarities between Haiti's torture prison, Fort Dimanche, and the Auschwitz of Alain Resnais' Night and Fog. )
Dominique also co-directed and narrated the first all-Haitian feature, But, I am Beautiful, (1961), an ironic documentary about a beauty pageant. He inspired other Haitian writers and intellectuals to make movies that would illuminate the lives of audiences who couldn't find themselves portrayed in literature even if they were able to read.
But it wasn't until Demme tracked down Rassoul Labuchin, the Haitian director of Anita (1982), a movie about an indentured servant, that he learned of Dominique's pioneer role in Haitian moviemaking. "He's the godfather of the idea of films made by Haitians for Haitians in Haiti on Haitian themes. I do believe in the spirit world, and if Jean is there monitoring The Agronomist, I'm sure he's very pleased that a piece of Anita is showing in America wherever this film is playing."
Haitian Cinema 101
Demme could never quite sell Dominique on the premise that as a character he was significant enough to carry a film about Haiti. Demme says Dominique agreed to cooperate mostly because he had so much time on his hands in exile. "I could see he was not totally sold on the idea; still, I was convinced it was a good one, and I was happy to be getting to know this amazing man. When I found out how big he was on cinema and on Haitian cinema in particular, I had a great idea for a stage piece - and funnily enough, this one he was interested in."
Demme, who had directed the performance films of Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense (1984) and Spalding Gray's Swimming to Cambodia (1987), came up with the concept for a Gray-like one-man show called The History of Haitian Cinema, to be done, ideally, at the Public Theatre in New York. "Jean would appear on stage as a lecturer for Haitian Cinema 101. He would get clips and present the background to whatever Haitian films that were available. But there would be this other, dominant motif. He would start describing an incredible scene in some very cinematic way, from Haitian history or current events; we'd bring in the most dramatic lighting and underscoring. Then we'd bring the lights back up and Jean would say, 'Of course, that scene hasn't been filmed yet.' It would be a history lesson about Haiti, but with humor and irony and film clips." Some of the clips Demme and Dominique organized for workshops on this project ended up in The Agronomist. A lot more will show up on the DVD.
When Demme's at his peak, as he is in The Agronomist, he gets the most from his collaborators, then sculpts their contributions into a spiritual whole. He credits editor Gelber for the potent shaping of the movie; she does an amazing job at creating poetic and kinetic links between interviews and archival material. But Demme's sensibility is what joins social activism and movie love with a healing transcendence.
The director speaks of a favorite moment: "I love when, late in the picture, Jean explains that his new initiative was to use the radio station to demand the inclusion of peasants inside the national culture and the government. Before anything else, he says, we must accept that the outsider is a human being. What I love is that it's so La Strada - these outsiders are human beings. That's Fellini." It's also pure unadulterated Demme.
Five Demme Favorites
Citizens Band (1977) - a.k.a. Handle With Care
In this cross between Sherwood Anderson and Preston Sturges, every small-town character has some silly sexual secret, but each expresses passion only on his or her CB radio. It's full of running jokes that actually pay off. Did the dog die? Rent it and find out.
Melvin and Howard (1980)
Demme takes an item from the news - the purported Howard Hughes will that left Melvin Dummar, a young Utah gas-station operator, one-sixteenth of the Hughes estate - and transforms it into a lyrical comic fable about the American dream as seen from top to bottom.
Stop Making Sense (1984)
The ability to confront the world's worst aspects and still sing life's praises is something that Demme and the art-rock group Talking Heads share, and it helps turn their concert documentary into an exhilarating experience - almost a call to rock and roll faith.
Something Wild (1986)
Jeff Daniels, a tax consultant, falls for Melanie Griffith, a wild thing, and comes up against Ray Liotta, her ex-con old flame - and runs a shaky but lively course from the sublimely ridiculous to the ridiculously sublime in this daring, blood-streaked comedy.
Swimming to Cambodia (1987)
In his filming of Spalding Gray's monologue about acting in The Killing Fields, he helps us see Gray exactly as he should be seen: not as a simple storyteller but as a performance artist who uses common rhythmic speech to make the everyday and the outer limits equally scary, sad or funny.