[Blackstudies-l] How Jonathan Demme Walked the Walk in Haiti

Maria Lima lima at geneseo.edu
Tue May 9 08:23:41 EDT 2017

lisaparavisini posted: " A report by Laura R. Wagner for Slate. Jonathan
Demme, who died last week at age 73, was best known to American audiences
as the Academy Award-winning director of The Silence of the Lambsand
Philadelphia, but to those who knew him in Haiti and the Hai"
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<http://repeatingislands.com/author/lisaparavisini/> How Jonathan Demme
Walked the Walk in Haiti
lisaparavisini <http://repeatingislands.com/author/lisaparavisini/>

[image: C-WxrrhUwAAigj8.jpg]

A report by Laura R. Wagner for *Slate*

Jonathan Demme, who died last week at age 73
was best known to American audiences as the Academy Award-winning director
of *The Silence of the Lambs*
but to those who knew him in Haiti and the Haitian diaspora, Demme was an
ardent and unwavering advocate of human rights and democracy in Haiti

For many foreigners, Haiti is an obscure object of intervention and
salvation, onto which they project hopes, fantasies, and despairs. For
Demme, however, Haiti mattered concretely. He promoted the rights of people
in Haiti and of Haitian refugees and detainees in the United States,
working with groups including the National Coalition for Haitian Rights and
Americans for Immigrant Justice, whose director, Cheryl Little, last week
recalled that he “didn’t just talk the talk, he walked the walk
Demme did this work with humility, openness, and wonder, without fanfare or

[image: The_agronomist_movie_poster.jpg]

But Demme, an avid collector of Haitian art
knew and loved Haiti beyond the headlines, beyond human rights abuses and
crisis. He promoted Haitian talent—Haitian directors, actors, writers,
visual artists, and journalists. (Haitian music appears in *The Silence of
the Lambs, Philadelphia, **Beloved*
*and *Rachel Getting Married*
if you look carefully, Hannibal Lecter’s equally sadistic nemesis, Dr.
Chilton, has Haitian paintings hanging in his office

During his first trip to Haiti in 1987, shortly after the fall of
Jean-Claude Duvalier, to make the documentary *Haiti: Dreams of Democracy,*
Demme met Jean Dominique, the director of Radio Haïti-Inter, and
Dominique’s professional partner and wife, Michèle Montas. Demme would
recall <https://charlierose.com/videos/4998> that Jean Dominique was “the
most charismatic man I had ever encountered. I couldn’t believe this guy!
... He just oozed charisma, and confidence, and cool. And when he spoke,
you wanted to hear more.” His decades-long friendship with Dominique and
Montas would prove to be one of his most enduring engagements with Haiti.
>From the dawn of Haiti’s democratic movement to its unraveling, through
exile and assassination, this friendship resulted in one of Demme’s most
personal films, *The Agronomist*. This documentary would be instrumental in
the struggle against impunity in ways neither man could have foreseen.

The archives of Radio Haiti, now at Duke University’s Rubenstein Rare Book
and Manuscript Library, contain little-known material—including audio,
video, and letters— testifying to Demme’s long commitment to Haiti in
general, and to Radio Haiti in particular. Much of the video was filmed
during Radio Haiti’s second exile, during the 1991-1994 coup years, when
Jean Dominique and Michèle Montas were living in New York. Dominique was
adrift and demoralized during this period, far from his station and his
listeners, and far from a beloved homeland whose fate remained uncertain.
During this time, Demme worked with Dominique on a series of projects,
exploring how best to channel Dominique’s personality and presence. These
included a *History of Haitian Cinema* project. Demme, with characteristic
enthusiasm, wrote to Dominique that the project, though never completed,
had been filled with “true drama, exhilaration, illumination, hilarity,
profundity, and many other joyful jolts.” Another experiment saw Demme,
Dominique, and hip-hop star KRS-One
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-FDsYaJCSXo&feature=youtu.be> discussing
music, spirit possession, and the CIA.

It was also during those years of exile that Demme recorded the majority of
the footage that eventually became *The Agronomist*
<http://www.amazon.com/dp/B0007XBLK8/?tag=slatmaga-20>, the documentary
about Jean Dominique and Radio Haiti. The uncut footage shows Demme’s skill
in drawing out the sometimes secretive Dominique. Jean Dominique had
interviewed quite a few prevaricators in his lifetime, and could see
through bullshit at a glance. Yet when faced with Demme’s sincere
friendship, Dominique revealed something of the man beneath the guarded
public persona. Demme later recalled, “Look, the secret agenda I had when I
proposed doing a documentary on Jean … was I thought this guy was going to
be a movie star someday. And I’m going to get to know him, and cultivate
him, and get kind of a screen test. It would be a good documentary, but
mainly I’ll groom him for that Oscar-winning supporting actor part in a
movie of the future.” But Dominique’s soul was in Haiti, and as soon as
democracy and constitutional order were restored in October 1994, he and
Montas returned and reopened the station.

Demme was overjoyed. He imagined it as the climax of *The Agronomist*, “the
ultimate *epiphany* of working toward that extraordinary moment when we
actually see Radio Haiti *returning to the airwaves*!!”  He recruited Hollywood
friends to record their congratulations
Danny Glover, Tom Hanks, and Anthony Hopkins, who delivers Haitian Creole
slogans with Shakespearean gravitas *(*“*n ap boule piti piti, anfòm nèt!”*).
And in 1996, Demme worked with a young Haitian-American writer named
Edwidge Danticat, producing a Haitian Creole-language radio adaptation of
her short story
"A Wall of Fire Rising."

The making of *The Agronomist *was neither straightforward nor painless.
Neither was the two men’s relationship built upon reverence and worshipful
supplication (the Academy Award-winning director, the scrappy radio
journalist from an afflicted land). Dominique called the shots, sometimes
growing fed up with Demme’s persistence (occasionally declaring, “Jonathan,
you are a pain in the *bounda*,” a pain in the ass). There were long spans
in which it was not clear that the film would be completed at all. Once
Dominique and Montas returned to Port-au-Prince in 1994 to reopen Radio
Haiti, Dominique had much less time to devote to the making of the film.
Demme, though still convinced of Dominique’s star power and artistic
potential, understood and accepted his decision with humility. In a
handwritten letter filled with emphatic capitalization and squiggly
underlining, he wrote, “I have finally come to realize for myself that
rebuilding a radio station—not just *any* radio station, but Radio Haiti—is
a daunting task of extraordinary magnitude that in its way doesn’t
accommodate the making of a film into the process, either. ...
Unfortunately, my *RAMPANT* enthusiasm for you, your struggle, and my
desire to *SHARE* the magic of Jean Dominique with others has blinded me
... to the greater truth that as your friend, I must stop trying to
distract you from your mission with requests to sit down here or drive with
a camera, etc. etc. As your friend, and as a *‘fanatik *Dominique,’ I am
now standing by ready to *help* you in our magnificent efforts if I ever
possibly can—instead of *adding* to the chaos that confronts your mission.”

Jean Dominique died not knowing that *The Agronomist* would ever be
completed. He was murdered early one April morning in 2000, along with
station employee Jean-Claude Louissaint, as he arrived to work at Radio
Haiti. Less than two weeks later, Jonathan Demme eulogized his friend
<http://faculty.webster.edu/corbetre/haiti-archive-new/msg03512.html> in
the pages of *Time* magazine: “Jean remained at the microphone, perhaps
quixotically, speaking with the voice of the people, for the people, to the
people until the morning he was gunned down in the shadows of his studio.”
It was only after Jean Dominique’s death that Michèle Montas and Jonathan
Demme decided to finish *The Agronomist* at last.

And so it was that *The Agronomist*, originally intended to be a showcase
for Dominique’s personality and intellect, was ultimately an elegy. It is
not a comprehensive history of twentieth-century Haitian political history,
but that is not its purpose. It makes no definitive claims about the
masterminds of Dominique’s assassination, but it does not need to. With all
the grainy intimacy of a home movie, Demme captured Dominique’s disarming
irony, caustic wit, and terrifying intelligence. It is a love story, or
maybe two or even three love stories: the love of Jean and Michèle, the
love of Jean for Haiti, and the love of a filmmaker and his friend.

On Christmas Day 2002, there was an attempt on Michèle Montas’s life in
which her bodyguard, Maxime Seïde, was killed. Two months later, amid
escalating and untenable threats to the station’s journalists, Radio Haiti
closed for good. The years wore on, and the official investigation into
Jean Dominique’s assassination devolved into a farce of blockages, delays,
and institutional malfeasance
dismissed and replaced, witnesses dying under suspicious circumstances,
documents mysteriously disappearing from the courthouse, implicated
senators claiming immunity from appearing in court.

Jean Dominique would find justice only in the court of popular
opinion, and *The
Agronomist* was central to that project. The posthumous tribute would
become a weapon in the battle against injustice and forgetting. After the
Haitian Creole version of *The Agronomist* was released in 2007, Demme
quietly ensured that DVDs of *The Agronomist* would be distributed for free
in Haiti, so that Haitian people, especially those who were too young to
have experienced Radio Haiti firsthand, would have access to this history.
Michèle Montas told him, “Jonathan, you just gave me a machine gun.”

Jonathan Demme did a service to his friend, and gave a great gift to Haiti.
Perhaps Dominique never became Haiti’s answer to Spalding Gray. But from a
subtle place behind the camera, Demme used his talent, reputation, and
influence to amplify a singular voice of dissent. In large part because of
Jonathan Demme, Jean Dominique’s voice goes on.
*lisaparavisini <http://repeatingislands.com/author/lisaparavisini/>* | May
8, 2017 at 10:33 pm | Categories: News
<http://repeatingislands.com/category/news/> | URL: http://wp.me/psnTa-vfb

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