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September 1, 2014

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Agronomist, The
(Reviewed April 23, 2004)
Rating: Not worthy of a star
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Back in the days when propaganda was in its infancy it was nothing without its villains. Who can forget the soft, pudgy capitalist in his formal attire and top hat unconcernedly grinding the faces of the poor? But this character is now forgotten, his only lasting cultural effect being the fashion for grown men to dress like small children. Meanwhile propaganda has become more coy and sophisticated about what it is against. Consider The Agronomist, Jonathan Demme’s tribute to Jean Leopold Dominique, a Haitian radio personality and popular advocate of the poor who, aged 70, was gunned down by persons unknown as he arrived for work at Radio Haiti on the morning of April 3rd, 2000. Who would have wanted him dead? Well, there are one or two hints that the answer might have been Jean-Bertrand Aristide, then on the eve of his second election to the presidency.

But the only real reason for thinking so that the film has to offer is an interview Dominique did with Aristide in 1996, when the latter was out of office, in which Dominique rather badgered him about his "gifts to the bourgeoisie" — a nice way of saying bribes for favors — during a previous spell as president. Aristide, we suppose, rather resented it. Not a lot to go on there really. But there are two more important reasons for the film’s reticence on what you might think would be the crucial point of who killed its hero. The first is that Dominique had been through most of his career, including two periods of exile from Haiti when it was under military rule, one of Aristide’s stoutest champions. The other is that it’s often better, nowadays, for your villain to be faceless.

Consider that word "bourgeoisie." Ah, that takes us back! Suddenly we’re in the world of Rich Uncle Pennybags again. Aristide would have resented Dominique’s charge because he was a communist. At least he started out as one. Demme includes a clip of him in his younger days as a fire-breathing priest of the "liberation" tendency blaming the United States for all Haiti’s problems. It’s fighting words to tell such a man that he’s sucking up to the bourgeoisie. But propaganda cannot be made out of the intramural quarrels of the left. Better, the communists of old could have told you, to leave the question of Aristide’s guilt unexamined and go after the bourgeoisie themselves. Only the film doesn’t do that either. Dominique is clearly a member of the bourgeoisie himself, but there is no reference to this except for what would otherwise be the cryptic charge of a woman in a supermarket that he is a "traitor." Nor is there any mention of the racial division between the Haitian élites, made up of lighter skinned blacks and mulattoes who are educated and speak proper French, and the poor who speak in the "kréyole" patois of the common people — though Dominique and his lovely and charming wife and broadcasting partner, Michele Montas, and his whole family clearly belong to the former.

Yet I don’t think that’s the reason that the wicked bourgeoisie — or "millionaires" as they are otherwise known — remain such dubious, unidentifiable figures in this film. Not even the various dictators, "Papa Doc" Duvalier and his son "Baby Doc" (deposed 1986) and General Raul Cedras (overthrown by American invasion, 1994) get the full propaganda-villain treatment. Not even the thugs of the Ton Ton Macoutes, the Duvaliers’ paramilitary police do. As a result, the obviously heroic M. Dominique is left to fulminate on behalf of the poor, kréyole speaking, voodoo-worshipping masses in something of a vacuum. Yes, yes, we find ourselves saying, we too are in favor of democracy and "participation" — though we may not be quite so sure as Dominique was that revolutionary mobs are a desirable form of same — but whom do we have to get rid of for these desirable things to happen?

To this question no answer is apparent. The sell-out Aristide has, since this film was made, gone the way of the Duvaliers, but there is as yet no prospect of an end to Haiti’s miseries. What we are left with is the default villain of all contemporary propaganda — amusingly, the same villain cited by Aristide in his unlamented downfall — namely, the United States of America! Is it beginning to be clear why vague villains are in vogue? When the chimerical Capitalist was in his heyday, the economic theory may have been awry, but the man himself was indisputably present, his pockets stuffed with the riches he had, theoretically, looted from the workers. Uncle Sam is a more shadowy figure and his connivance in keeping the Haitian poor in poverty less believable, particularly since the Haitian poor themselves are risking their lives in large numbers to get to the United States.

But Demme belongs to the bien pensant international left among whom all that’s necessary is to make mention of the CIA, Ronald Reagan and the School of the Americas at Ft. Benning, Georgia, and the indictment is as good as proved. And in the effort of this and other forms of contemporary propaganda to prove it, vagueness is a virtue because what is being promoted is an intellectual contradiction, or a set of intellectual contradictions, namely the necessarily vague sense that, wherever in the world people are poor, miserable and given to killing each other, America is to blame. Thus America is equally guilty for not stopping the killing in Rwanda and for trying to stop it in Iraq or Haiti. And, if you were one of the protestors against the IMF and the World Bank in Washington the weekend this film opened, America is also guilty for lending the poor money. Jean Dominique himself might have been well pleased with some such bogus conclusion, but the cause for which he died deserves better.




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