For more than 40 years, American foreign policy and media coverage have focused on only one Caribbean trouble spot: Cuba. Haiti and its tribulations occasionally attract some interest, but in between these headline-grabbing crises, eclectic filmmaker Jonathan Demme seems to pay more attention to the country than do most U.S. news organizations. Thus The Agronomist, a powerful new Demme documentary about a man whose story shouldn’t—but probably will—be a revelation to most non-Haitian viewers.
Early in the film, Demme’s subject, Jean Dominique, explains the title: He studied plant genetics in Paris and has always felt a strong connection to the land he traversed as a child with his traveling-salesman father. Improving his country’s crops, however, would have to wait until after he’d cultivated an improved political climate. So Dominique and his wife, Michèle Montas, a veteran of Columbia University’s late-’60s radicalism, instead operated Radio Haiti Inter, which brought news and commentary to a country that was as starved for truth as for justice. Ultimately, still-unidentified enemies paid Dominique the ultimate tribute, assassinating him outside the radio station in April 2000.
Jean-Bertrand Aristide, removed from power for the second time earlier this year, is but the latest of Haiti’s failed leaders. Dominique began his cultural agitation as a student during the ’60s, running a cinema club that was shuttered by François “Papa Doc” Duvalier for showing Night and Fog, Alain Resnais’ meditation on oppression and genocide. Dominique was fascinated by film, an interest he acquired in Paris. In fact, he co-directed a documentary that Demme credits as the first Haitian movie, an ironic look at a local beauty pageant.
It was also cinema that connected Demme and his subject. The director met the agronomist/cinéaste/ broadcaster in 1987, while working on an earlier documentary, Haiti: Dreams of Democracy. During one of the periods in which Dominique and Montas were exiled in the United States, he, Demme, and writer Edwidge Danticat workshopped a never-completed Spalding Gray–like theater piece about Haiti. But in 1994, the United States–backed regime that had overthrown the first Aristide administration ended, and Dominique returned to Haiti. Demme went along, filming Dominique’s return and the struggle to get the severely vandalized station back on the air. Dominique finally sent the director away, telling him the documentary was impeding Radio Haiti’s rebuilding. The movie’s final footage wasn’t shot until after Dominique’s death, when the agronomist was at last united with his beloved Artibonite River.
Dominique emerges in Demme’s film as a sometimes prickly but remarkably selfless man. He was willing to put his aspirations on hold—and his life at risk—as long as Haiti lacked democratic rule. A well-educated member of the Haitian aristocracy, fluent in French and English, Dominique established the first radio station to broadcast in Kreyòl, the language of the nation’s poor, mostly illiterate majority. But he never seems to be slumming in other people’s misery. Dominique’s passion to improve the lot of the average Haitian is palpable, and his connection to his countrymen is underscored by such moments as the one in which 60,000 people greet him at the airport after Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s 1986 flight from the country.
The Agronomist is a stirring biography that doubles as a quick history of Haiti, from the slave revolt against Napoleon’s France to Montas’ on-air prophecy of her late husband’s continuing influence. It’s also an expression of a people’s spirit, exemplified by Wyclef Jean and Jerry “Wonda” Duplessis’ vibrant, joyous score. Aside from Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony, which is actually about the ideological use of song, political documentaries rarely include as much music as this one does. But then Dominique himself was as lively and engaging as any musical number, frequently punctuating his dialogue with sound effects. The Agronomist shows its hero as a political boss jock, a dynamo whose high-speed patter sold not the latest hits but the possibility of freedom.
Somewhere between the ’60s high-school dance and the Hacienda circa 1988, “It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it” became “A new way of life was evolving.” The latter overstatement is the opening claim of Maestro, a sweeping yet parochial documentary about the New York dance-club scene. Though it’s possible that many of writer-director Josell Ramos’ assertions can be justified, they aren’t by his film.
Maestro is actually pretty interesting, but probably only to viewers who can provide a lot of the interpretation—and some of the facts—themselves. The movie includes little footage of the scene’s early days, and many of the people Ramos hallows as founding fathers—women are rare, although not entirely absent—are now either dead or seriously inarticulate. These include Larry Levan, the late DJ who’s the movie’s leading candidate for beatification. The surviving talking heads are mostly turntablists, remixers, dancers, and other nightclub habitués, some of them moderately famous, including François Kevorkian, Jellybean Benítez, and Shep Pettibone. No scholars, journalists, or disinterested observers—let alone skeptics—offer any commentary.
Maestro may surprise those who think Giorgio Moroder, Afrika Bambaataa, or Happy Mondays invented disco/techno/garage/whatever. The Beatles were still together—and no one had even heard of Donna Summer—when the underground dance-club scene was born. The film dates the phenomenon to 1969, the year of the Stonewall riots and the rise of the Sanctuary, an innovative DJ-driven venue. It was followed by the Loft and the Gallery in 1972 and the Paradise Garage in 1976. In these places, gays and straights; men and women; and blacks, browns, and whites all danced together, sometimes happily. (Tension between the various camps is mentioned but not explored.)
According to people like David Mancuso, who founded the Loft, the scene’s early intentions were idealistic and egalitarian. To circumvent New York’s liquor regulations and ban on same-sex dancing, the city’s first dance-music venues were private, boozeless clubs limited to members. Yet the exclusivity wasn’t exploited to make big bucks or to sequester celebrities from the working-class African-American and Latino revelers who composed the bulk of the crowd. Rather,
each club, the narration suggests, was “an oasis.”
The closing montage of star DJs at work in Europe, Japan, and North America suggests that the number of oases has only grown. Yet Maestro spends much of its time brooding that the party’s over. Drugs and, especially, AIDS decimated the Manhattan dance-club demimonde, although Ramos concentrates on just a few casualties: Levan, artist and scenemaker Keith Haring, Paradise Garage owner Michael Brody, and pioneering DJ Francis Grasso, who was interviewed for the film before his demise. Levan was “the purest,” says one colleague, without explaining why. To those who didn’t make the scene before the Garage’s 1987 closing, such remarks provide little indication of what was missed.
Indeed, Maestro scants or ignores many aspects of the phenomenon it celebrates. Although Detroit-techno innovator Derrick May makes a brief appearance, the film generally ignores anything that happened outside Manhattan. The movie also never mentions upscale discos such as Studio 54 or dance-rock clubs such as Hurrah’s, even though the crowds and sounds at such venues overlapped and influenced those of the underground scene. Most curiously, Maestro doesn’t say much about the music.
That’s probably because getting the rights to hundreds of songs would have been too complicated and prohibitively expensive. So Ramos settles for generic thump-and-bleep by three electro composers, Jephté Guillaume, Antonio Ocasio, and Michael Cole. Some of the participants explain the evolution of modern DJ techniques and the invention of the 12-inch single, but this history is incomplete and occasionally unconvincing. And no one ever bothers to mention what underground-dance DJs played before the rise of disco. (According to the New York Times’ Grasso obit, his sets once included beat-heavy blues-rock by the likes of Led Zeppelin.)
Perhaps it’s just as well that Maestro leaves many topics open for further investigation. Even if New York is the historic center of dance culture, Tokyo, Ibiza, or Mar del Plata surely boasts at least one filmmaker who can construct a more comprehensive study of Clubland’s new way of life. CP