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14902: The silenced voice of Radio Haiti speaks again on film (fwd)
From: Robert Benodin <email@example.com>
The silenced voice of Radio Haiti speaks again on film
BY JACQUELINE CHARLES
It is a story about a man's love for his land and his people.
It is a tragedy of almost Shakespearean dimensions whose protagonist meets
an untimely death: seven bullets at the hands of an unknown assassin.
It is a labor of love that has taken Academy Award winning director Jonathan
Demme (Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia) nearly a decade to complete.
The Agronomist, Demme's much-anticipated documentary about Haiti's most
famous journalist, Jean Leopold Dominique, is the story of the Haitian
people told through the eyes of Dominique, a farming expert who became an
agent for change in his Caribbean homeland before being shot to death on
April 3, 2000 in his radio station's courtyard. The movie will be screened
Sunday at the Miami International Film Festival.
With the help of the microphone and his ''unquenchable faith as a militant
for true change,'' as he once put it, Dominique spent most of his 69 years
speaking out against those whom he believed were destroying his beloved
country: presidents, militias, military, the United States.
''I am not a journalist,'' Dominique says during his first sit-down
interview with Demme, July 12, 1993. ``I became a journalist. I am an
One of two films at this year's Miami International Film Festival that
explicitly addresses freedom of the press -- the other being the Brazilian
film, Something in the Air -- The Agronomist was born in Demme's desire to
capture on reel the Haitian people's perpetual, and often elusive, struggle
What has emerged through borrowed footage, black-and-white photographs and
Demme's candid, first-person interviews with Dominique and Michele Montas,
his widow, is a powerful story about one man's quest against two
dictatorships, military coups and a democratically elected government to
give voice to the Haitian people.
In a nation where radio is the preferred medium, Dominique was the most
recognizable journalist, and his Port-au-Prince station, Radio Haiti Inter,
was both revolutionary and independent. He bought the station in 1971 and
renamed it Radio Haiti Inter, after joining it as a reporter in the late
The first to systematically broadcast news to Haitians in Creole, the
language of the majority of the population, Dominique became a friend of the
poor and an enemy of the state. Twice, he and his wife were forced into
exile; first in 1980 by Haiti's President-for-Life Jean-Claude Duvalier, and
then in 1991 by a military coup that ousted Haiti's first democratically
elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
''A very, very, risky business,'' Dominique says in the film about broadcast
journalism. ``I tried to introduce Kreyol. I tried to introduce information.
During that first interview, Dominique attempts to put the risks into
perspective when Demme, a graduate of Southwest Miami High, asks whether he
had any doubts his station -- destroyed during the 1991 coup -- would return
to the air.
''Not a shadow of a doubt,'' Dominique says. ``You cannot kill the truth.
You cannot kill justice. You cannot kill what we are fighting for.
Participation of the citizen throughout the country . . . You cannot kill
But six years after Dominique and Montas returned from exile, someone did
try to silence the voice of Radio Haiti Inter.
On April 3, 2000, Dominique and a security guard were shot to death in a
hail of bullets as Dominique entered the station, touching off violence and
national mourning. Footage of Dominique's covered-up, bullet-riddled body
being placed in the back of an ambulance is captured in the film as are
images from his funeral and of his ashes being scattered in the Artibonite
Valley, home of the Haitian peasants he championed.
Nearly three years after his death, Dominique's killers remain on the loose.
Despite pressure from national and international human rights and
journalists' groups to find justice, no trial has occured. The investigation
has been hampered by delays and obstacles including the resignation of an
investigative judge, who fled to South Florida, and the refusal of the
Haitian Senate to lift immunity for a powerful senator and Aristide
supporter, Dany Toussaint, named by the judge as a suspect. Toussaint has
said he's innocent.
Late last year, the Paris-based media watchdog group, Reporters Without
Borders, called on the Haitian government to protect key people in the
investigation, including the current judge, who has yet to issue his report.
The request came after a gunman killed a security guard outside Montas'
home. Haitian investigators have said they are unsure whether the shooting
was an attempt to kill Montas, who has been crusading to bring her husband's
killer to justice. Following Sunday's screening, Montas will receive a
free-speech award from People for the American Way Foundation.
Demme, who befriended Dominique and Montas during the filming, has launched
his own campaign to find justice. He has persuaded dozens of Hollywood
luminaries to join his letter-writing campaign demanding action from the
''For me the film is just one more way of keeping Jean's story alive, and
hopefully keeping the quest for justice alive,'' says Demme, who views the
film as a work in progress. ``There have been so many, so many good people
killed in Haiti while struggling for democracy. . . . Jean seems the
closest; the easiest one to find justice for.''
Dominique's death still haunts him.
''The death of Jean is a tragedy unto itself,'' says Demme. ``Here is
someone who was able to survive two Duvaliers, but couldn't survive the
changes that occured since then. Under a democracy, Haiti couldn't protect
Jean after Duvalier.''
The irony is not lost on many in South Florida's Haitian community who are
being invited to see the film and to participate in a panel discussion by
People for the American Way Foundation about the role of free radio.
''It is the greatest of ironies that Jean Dominique would have survived all
that he had, only to fall under Aristide's watch,'' said Gepsie Metellus, a
Haitian-American activist and executive director of Sant La Haitian
Community Center in Little Haiti. ``This is a man whose dream you can't
kill; a legacy you can't kill.''
Metellus concedes some will see the film as a political indictment of the
failings of Aristide's Lavalas Family party, others will see it for what
Demme intended: Not a whodunnit, but a living testament to a man who
Dina Paul Parks, executive director of the New York-based National Coalition
for Haitian Rights, who has seen the film, says Demme's personal respect and
admiration for Dominique and Montas come across clearly.
While the film is plainly personal, Dominique's story, says Paul Parks, is
``a marquee case about what the Aristide government is willing to do
regarding human rights violations, regarding political violence and
assassinations and impunity.''
Said Demme: ``[It's] a film that celebrates the life of a great, great human
being; two great human beings because now it's a portrait of Michele.''
Still, the political implications are not diminished. Toward the end of the
film, Demme has included a fiery speech Dominique gave on the air about
Toussaint after he refused to allow the senator's supporters from going on
Radio Haiti Inter.
Demme also includes an interview Dominique did with Aristide in which
Dominique questions the president about the corruption that exists within
his government, and its acceptance by certain member of Aristide's Lavalas
Toward the end of the film, the audience hears the same message that it
heard at the beginning. It's Dominique, repeating the same words he spoke
every morning on Radio Haiti Inter:
``They try everything . . . to gnaw at us . . . to bury us . . . to
electrocute us . . .to drown us . . . to drain us. It's been going on for
more than 50 years . . . and why should it stop? They can still try to crush
us, to machine gun us . . . to ignore, slander, bully, and seduce us . . .
to deflate, empty and distort us. It's been going on for more than 50 years.
Is there a reason for it to stop? Yes! One. Things must change in Haiti for
freedom of the press. Radio Haiti. At the service of the Haitian people.''