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Analysis: Haiti's challenge on film

By PAT NASON, UPI Los Angeles   |   April 22, 2004 at 7:09 PM   |   Comments

LOS ANGELES, April 22 (UPI) -- Two centuries after Haiti declared its independence from France, the Caribbean island nation has yet to enjoy the prosperity that self-determination promises, and a new documentary by Oscar-winning filmmaker Jonathan Demme about the assassination of a leading voice for democracy helps illustrate the difficulty of Haiti's challenge.

"The Agronomist" is an account of the life and work of Jean Dominique, the Haitian journalist and political commentator who was shot and killed in April 2000 outside Haiti Inter, the radio station he owned and operated in Port-au-Prince. René Préval, the president of Haiti at the time, called for a three-day period of official mourning, and a crowd estimated at 16,000 turned out for Dominique's funeral.

Demme, who won an Oscar for directing "The Silence of the Lambs," met Dominique in 1986 and filmed extensive interviews with him over the years -- footage which formed much of the narrative of "The Agronomist." The movie takes its title from Dominique's training, earlier in his life, for a career in soil management and crop production, a critical and frequently troubled component of Haiti's economy and its culture.

As a byproduct of his work in agronomy, Dominique became involved in public affairs in Haiti, developing a reputation as an independent and challenging agitator for democracy. His wife, Michèle Montas, has said Dominique was killed because he was dangerous -- no one could control his Radio Haiti Inter broadcasts, and his exposés often ended up costing well-connected people their sources of income.

In an interview with United Press International, Montas said Demme's film is about something more than her late husband.

"It started as a homage to a friend, and (Demme) turned it into the story of a man, then the land itself," she said.

A constant undercurrent that runs through "The Agronomist" is the nagging question of why Haiti seems to have experienced so much misery for so much of its history. Montas, who reported along with her husband over Haiti Inter, acknowledged that her country has had more than its share of trouble.

"Let's not forget that we have had a troubled history from the start," she said. "We were isolated, a slave nation, a colony that declared itself independent and free."

She said the military culture of Haiti -- "army and weapons" -- has always dominated the country's political life.

"We've had 32 armed coups," she said. "(Former President Jean-Bertrand) Aristide says 33, now that he has been overthrown."

Montas said Haiti has historically been shunned by Europe because it set a "bad example" by proclaiming its independence. And she said the United States has only been interested in Haiti for reasons of self-interest.

"The United States has always been not only part of the solution to our problem but also part of the problem," she said. "They didn't come to Haiti because they loved us. They came to Haiti for political and strategic reasons."

To the extent that most Americans know much about Haiti, that knowledge may be limited to a few broad themes, including poverty, voodoo and constant regime change -- from presidents-for-life "Papa Doc" and "Baby Doc" Duvalier to the recent travails of Aristide. Daniel Wolff, a producer of "The Agronomist," told UPI that as he and Demme worked on the film, they came to understand that few Americans might have the contextual knowledge necessary to understand Dominique's story.

"The things we assumed people knew about Haiti, we realized nobody knew," he said.

Wolff said part of the challenge of making "The Agronomist" lay in the necessity to provide the historical context that made Dominique's story compelling, without turning the movie into a dry history lesson.

"We tried to find ways of going back and not try to be too boring about it," he said. "Hopefully people will come out of this movie and say, 'I've got to read some more books and get some more information about this.'"

Montas said a major contributor to Haiti's problems over the past 200 years has been the oligarchic structure of its economy. More recently, she said, international pressure forced Haiti onto an uneven trade playing field.

"To get aid you have to open your markets no matter how fragile your own market is," she said. "Then you are invaded by products supported by their own governments."

Haiti is currently going through yet another period of political instability with the ouster of Aristide. Montas said it is difficult to be optimistic about the country's future.

"We don't see clearly right now which direction we're taking," she said. "All the jails have been open. Even the suspects in Jean's case are out, circulating freely. You have a number of people in jail for other reasons, different political assassinations, even massacres -- they're out. Never has impunity been so obvious and blatant as it is now."

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(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

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