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Haiti activist profiled in ‘The Agronomist’

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THE AGRONOMIST — *** — Documentary on slain Haitian radio host Jean Dominique; in English and French, with English subtitles; rated PG-13 (violence, profanity, brief gore, racial epithets, brief nudity).

The mark of an effective documentary feature is its ability to work on more than one level. And by those standards at least, "The Agronomist" is very effective.

The film works as a profile of its subject, Jean Dominique, a Haitian radio journalist and civil-rights activist whose outspoken nature eventually led to his death. But it also works as a history lesson on Haiti, a country that's been in the headlines more than once this year.

Naturally, the film also winds up being a bit talk-heavy, although never to the point that it becomes a bore. Still, there is something fairly creepy about hearing and seeing Dominique tell his own story — as if his voice has come back from the grave; as if he's still continuing his crusade today.

As the film's title implies, Dominique was trained as an agricultural specialist, though his concern for the well-being of others led to a career change of sorts. At Radio Haiti, Dominique found a place where he could espouse his ideas about free speech and democracy, often railing against Haiti's so-called "dictator-for-life," Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier.

Unfortunately, he did not find those efforts any easier under succeeding Haitian governments — even Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who initially gave Dominique some reason to hope.

However, Dominique did find others who shared his views about Haitian freedom, including his wife, Michele, who now runs the station in his stead.

Demme culled most of the interview portions of the film from one-on-one conversations he conducted in 1993, when Dominique spent time in exile in New York City. And for the most part, the film is well-constructed.

The biographical section at the onset is a bit clunky, but it does help the audience get to know Dominique, who was — judging from what's seen and heard here — an engaging, even magnetic personality.

"The Agronomist" is rated PG-13 for violent newsreel footage (riot suppression and shootings), occasional use of strong profanity and racial epithets, brief gore, and brief native nudity. Running time: 90 minutes.

E-mail: jeff@desnews.com