Haiti: An Introduction to The Agronomist

La mobilizacion en contra mosanto en plateau central © 2010 Etant Dupain

The Public Archive’s first venture towards a local engagement with the Vanderbilt and greater Nashville communities is a film series titled Memory, Cinema, Archive, co-sponsored by Vanderbilt University’s International Lens and the Department of History.

The first films in the series are a triptych on Haiti, scheduled in the weeks prior to the Republic’s presidential elections on 26 November 2010. On November 2, we screened Jonathan Demme’s documentary The Agronomist, about Haitian journalist and activist Jean Dominique. The Man by the Shore, Raoul Peck’s 1993 film on the everyday life of political violence during the regime of François Duvalier, will be shown on November 9. The mini-series will close on November 16 with a screening of Nicolas Rossier’s Aristide and the Endless Revolution (2005), which documents the political career of Jean-Bertrand Aristide from popular election to international overthrow. All films will be screened at Vanderbilt’s Sarratt Cinema at 7 PM. All films are free.

We were pleased to have Colin Dayan kick off the series by introducing The Agronomist. Dayan, the Robert Penn Warren Professor in the Humanities at Vanderbilt, is author of A Rainbow for the Christian West: Introducing René Depestre’s Poetry (1977), Haiti, History, and the Gods (1998) and the forthcoming The Law is a White Dog. Her introduction to The Agronomist, a moving reflection on politics and aesthetics in Haiti, is reproduced below.

An Introduction to The Agronomist


I’m delighted to introduce the first film on Haiti in the International Lens series for this year.  The film is by Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme, whom you know for Silence of the Lambs, but The Agronomist is a film quite distinct from that.  It is a documentary, not a drama; it is in very low key, in contrast to that other film; though it is in color, you will recall it later as having the quality of black and white; and it’s about…an agronomist.

But this agronomist, who cared deeply about the life of those who lived on and through the land, was also Haiti’s most prominent journalist. In 1968 he became the owner of his country’s oldest broadcasting station, Radio Haiti Inter. He began broadcasts in Creole, the language of 70 percent of Haitians–instead of in French, the language of the ruling elite. And he introduced new programming—from sound portraits of a vodou festival, to news about the troubles of dictators like Somoza of Nicaragua and the Shah of Iran that encouraged listeners to question the status quo at home.


I never met Jean Dominique, “the agronomist.”  I first visited Haiti, the country of my mother and the country where I had always felt most at home, in 1970, shortly before the death of “Papa Doc”—François Duvalier.  I went there to study the Haitian religion—vodou and its gods—who receive the unquestioning devotion of the peasantry, a devotion equaled only by their love of the land.  I rode up the narrow mountain passes that lead to the elegant retreats of the Haitian elite, high above the city of Port-au-Prince.  This journey told the story of a divided land, where one percent of the population has nearly half the national wealth, while eighty percent live in poverty.

That was the Haiti of “Papa Doc.” A land of blackouts, roadblocks, and fear. By that time, Dominique had already been working at Haiti Inter for a decade.  Haiti Inter called for social and economic change, and did so in a language that the masses could understand.  You can see why it mattered.  Dominique once said, “The only weapon I have is my microphone and my unshakable faith as a militant for change, for veritable change … It’s the way for the millions, who live in dirt and poverty, to prove that they are human.  It is the difference between darkness and light.” Dominique survived years of threats and beatings at the hands of Duvalier’s Tontons Macoutes and subsequent regimes and was twice forced into exile, the last time when President Jean-Bertrand Aristide—the first democratically elected President of Haiti—was overthrown in a military coup, supported by outside interests and the Haitian elite.

Jean Dominique was an unlikely hero.  He belonged to the Haitian elite and appeared destined for a life of privilege.  Yet his father was a true Haitian patriot and nationalist.  When the marines of the Southern Command walked past his house during the American Occupation of Haiti from 1915-1934, he warned his son to turn away, “Don’t look at them,” he ordered. “Don’t look at them.” Dominique’s higher education in France gave him that curious, Gallic profession known as the agronomist—a sort of expert on agriculture, in the broad sense of someone who can tell you, not what to plant where, but rather what sort of agriculture to practice.  The Haitian peasantry had long been exploited by landowners. Though he worked as an agronomist for only six years, throughout his life he would remain close to the farmers who then represented the majority of the nation’s population.  Dominique realized that only through land reform could Haitians genuinely be free.  He struggled throughout his life to achieve that.

As you will see, Demme makes excellent use of rare footage of the Haitian peasantry.  The images remind us of a Haiti that is rarely seen—a Haiti that exists outside of the cramped and sprawling, and now devastated, Port-au-Prince. Demme’s interest in Haiti began on a visit in 1987. He conducted over 15 interviews with Jean Dominique, supplementing these with rare documentary footage of the vodou festival of  “saint d’eau,” which Dominique broadcast live to the Haitian public in 1973.  Demme also includes scenes from Haitian feature films, news footage documenting the rise and fall of both “Papa” and “Baby Doc” Duvalier, as well as footage that recalls the enigmatic career of priest-turned-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.  We learn about Jimmy Carter’s presidency as a kind of “golden age” for human rights in Haiti that came to an end with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Just a few months after that, Dominique had to flee into exile for the first time.

Let us watch tonight and consider again how to tell the story of Haiti, the first Black Republic in the New World and the only successful revolution of slaves in history.  How do we tell that history—a story of culture thwarted by armed force, a majority still in chains to the greed of outsiders and a wealthy elite who even now regard the masses as savages, or worse, as subhumans.


That history has been made immeasurably worse this year, with the earthquake of January 12. Beyond the enormous death and destruction of ten months ago, we now read daily of mounting deaths from cholera in the fetid camps housing the survivors around Port-au-Prince.  International “aid”—present and visible in the ubiquitous SUVs and bottled water—has made little difference to the lives of the Haitian majority—those whom Dominique dedicated his life to helping—most of whom were forced off their land and into the capital in the 1980s after “Baby Doc” Duvalier boarded a US cargo plane for exile in the mountains of France.

Though many celebrated this moment as an end to dictatorship under the sign of a “liberated Haiti,” it actually meant not only “business as usual” but—as the increased threats to Dominique and his radio station demonstrated—a much worse transformation:  the permanent political destabilization of Haiti, as US interests, with the help of the Agency for International Development, began their drive to force the poor majority into the assembly industries and sweat shops that announced the “Taiwanization of Haiti.”  The results are what we see and read about today:  peasantry without their land, the land of the ancestors and their gods; increased poverty and ill-health, and, now the earthquake and its aftermath, with the celebrity beneficence of Bill Clinton and George Bush, as empty of real change as their promises are plentiful.

Forty years of visiting and working in Haiti, living there, reading about it, thinking about it, and writing about it have left me with much love and admiration, but also with fear and apprehension.  Change—but never the right kind of change—never seems to come to Haiti.  As you watch tonight, a life devoted to basic liberties, to freedom of the press, and to the lives of the Haitian majority, think about how Jean Dominique’s voice, his fight for the rights of the grass-roots sector, the voice of those on the land, lives on – and reminds us to consider the destiny of those who remain silenced.  Dominique tells us:  “If you see a good film correctly, the grammar of the film is a political act”—let’s watch Demme’s film about Dominique—and about the last decades of Haiti’s history—understand its grammar, and begin to see that not only this film but our watching it tonight—is a political act.

© Colin Dayan 2010 | Memory, Cinema, Archive was organized by The Public Archive and is sponsored by Vanderbilt University’s International Lens with additional funding from the Department of History.

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