The loftiest kind of biographical documentary uses the life of its subject as an emblem for a greater point, and that's clearly how Jonathan Demme sees his "The Agronomist." In telling the story of Haitian radio broadcaster Jean Dominique, Demme gets to revisit that nation's struggles against totalitarianism -- a topic the filmmaker, though best known for fictional entertainments like "The Silence of the Lambs" and "Philadelphia," has already mined in a handful of previous docs.
The preoccupation finds its logical figurehead in Dominique, whom Demme met during one of the fearless agitator's two exiles from his homeland -- expulsions Dominique earned for daring to disseminate the truth about governmental evils via his Radio Haiti Inter. A born raconteur, Dominique fairly assaults the camera even when he's sitting for an ordinary talking-head shot. His eyes bulge as he regales us with tales of the various Haitian regimes' hard-line tactics against his station and his country; his enormous teeth then invariably break into a wicked smile to deliver the punch line: Through Gestapo move after Gestapo move, the cause of freedom could not be contained. Factor in a fervency that's practically luminescent, and Dominique becomes a model of the political reformer as jack-o'-lantern -- except when he starts theatrically sniffing the air in demonstration of his ability to read the winds of popular uprising. Then, he's more bloodhound than Halloween decoration. Finds like him make a documentarian's life worth living.
With a forward motion that's only chronological when it needs to be, the movie recounts Dominique's rise from son of the soil -- his father, he says, instilled in him a deep nativist pride -- to papa bear of the independent airwaves. In between, he served as a specialist in plant genetics (this sower-and-the-seeds metaphor informs the movie's title) and the prime mover of Haiti's art-film movement. Through all of these ventures, he appears to have been propelled by an undying disdain for fascism and an instinctual sympathy with the plight of any other oppressed peoples across the globe. We also meet Dominique's wife, Michle Montas, who came to his station to work and found a life partnership that was to withstand years of official intimidation. Montas has a deliciously wistful moment when she recalls her education at the University of Maine and Columbia University: She was homecoming queen, she reveals with a chuckle.
The movie's relevance isn't merely to Haiti as it exists today, but to the enduring hypocrisy of "advanced" nations. When Dominique reminds us of the disconnect between President Clinton's pro-democratic statements and the CIA's covert undermining of that very cause, we're given fresh reason to distrust Washington's helping hand. Demme, though, avoids underlining his film's themes or otherwise overdirecting; his documentary style is unencumbered by the vanity of the Hollywood storyteller. And while he shortchanges one of the movie's most salient questions -- did Dominique's activities foment dissent, or just give it an outlet? -- he locates the full measure of triumph in the steep sacrifices the broadcaster came to pay for his activism. "The Agronomist" shows that a man's ideals really can supersede his comfort -- and that radio rebellion can amount to far more than Howard Stern.
(Opens Friday, May 14, at Regal Winter Park Village Stadium 20)