THE AGRONOMIST directed by Jonathan Demme, produced by Demme, Peter Saraf and Bevin McNamara. A Clinica Estetico production. A ThinkFilm release. 90 minutes. At the Bloor, Saturday-Wednesday (May 15 to 19). See Indie & Rep Film, page 102. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNNN
Hollywood needs its loose cannons, and they don't come much looser than Jonathan Demme. His insider creds include steering The Silence Of The Lambs to an Oscar sweep in 1992 and taking home the best-director prize for himself. He's made solid, character-driven films like Philadelphia and Melvin And Howard, but he took a turn in the 80s to make Stop Making Sense and Swimming To Cambodia, two performance films that stand at the top of the genre. And then there's Haiti. For years, Demme has harboured a passion for the miracle spirit of the place that's both the poorest in the Western hemisphere and home to its most singular revolution.
"It's corny and it's oversimplifying things like crazy, but you go to Haiti, you meet the Haitian people in the context of their culture, and you fall in love with the country," Demme says on his cellphone. "You want to be a part of it and it becomes a part of you.
"Culturally, Haiti is extraordinarily unique and abundant. It's there in all the folkloric richness, in the cultural richness, in the historical richness - this amazing struggle of the Haitian people, the descendants of the only slaves that successfully overthrew their masters and created a free nation."
Demme first embraced his love of Haiti in his documentary Haiti: Dreams Of Democracy. With The Agronomist, he returns to draw a buzzing portrait of Jean Dominique, a member of Haiti's privileged class who studied agronomy in Europe, came back to Haiti to help improve farming and ended up as the nation's martyred flashpoint for free speech.
Broadcasting in Creole from Radio Haiti Inter, a private station he ran with his wife, Dominique was a cross between Peter Gzowski and Papa Legba. In April 2000, he was murdered outside the radio station. All evidence, Demme says, points to men working for Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Dominique comes off as a human exclamation point. He's thin like a cricket, and he animates the air around him with spikes of energy. In the film, he punctuates his stories with gestures that would look foolish on anyone else. He actually sniffs the air when he talks about smelling trouble.
He's a fascinating man to watch, but Demme's name is the only reason this film exists. Today he's in the middle of post-production on his latest big-budget movie, a remake of The Manchurian Candidate set for release at the end of July. Activist, personal and low-budget, The Agronomist is the furthest thing from a summer studio release. But it's what Demme says he needs.
"It's when I'm working on a documentary that I think, 'Well, whaddaya know? I am a filmmaker,'" he says. "I'm making this documentary because I want to and I love it. With the fiction movies, there's a big part that's being a businessman. You're presented with somebody's very serious cash investment in order to realize a product that will turn a profit for its investors. A documentary has nothing to do with that. It's very liberating, very pure and a great relief."
It also allows him to express views he'd otherwise only get to air when making acceptance speeches.
"As an American citizen who is a filmmaker," he says, "it's always meant a lot to me to make films about Haiti that help in a tiny way to bring some positive information into this general vacuum. What's within that vacuum is more often than not negative, pejorative, stereotype-enforcing bullshit. It's a great country and a great people.
"Coming from a country that's had soiled hands in its relations with Haiti, to put it mildly, I feel happy as a filmmaker to be a friend of Haiti." email@example.com