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New Line Home Cinema presents
"I have no weapon other than my journalism, my microphone and my unquenchable faith as a militant for true change."
DVD ReviewThough right in our hemisphere, for many Americans Haiti and its political turmoil in recent decades has been dimly understood and has not commanded much attention; it got little media traction, for without an easily digestible storyline, there's too much else to report on that's safe and titillating and inconsequential. Filmmaker Jonathan Demme has made an impassioned documentary about Haiti, and tells the story of many of the sad developments in that country's history through the prism of one man: Jean Dominique, the founder and moving force behind Radio Haiti, the country's one independent source of news. Aside from his features, Demme has put together a substantial body of documentary work, including concert films (Stop Making Sense no doubt is my favorite of these) and the very moving Cousin Bobby, about, well, his cousin, a priest. He brings that same sense of passion, twinned with political commitment, to this project, and has produced a film that both celebrates the life of its central figure and provides useful and necessary context about the troubles in Haiti.
It is, though, a pretty awful title for a movie of any sort, and it isn't even an especially apt one for this film. Though he was an agronomist (i.e., agricultural scientist) by training, Jean Dominique's story is about his radio station, and its travails and triumphs during decades of turbulence. Dominique was schooled in France, and while a student was taken by the nouvelle vague, by the power of film—he wanted to establish some sort of infrastructure for a Haitian film industry, but was quickly shut down by the dictatorial government of the Duvaliers for being too subversive. This led him to the even more progressive world of radio—he established Radio Haiti, the one media outlet not controlled by the government. In our time now of runaway brides and Scott and Laci and this week's celebrity trial of the century, we don't usually think of broadcasting as a subversive act—but simply reporting the unvarnished truth to the Haitian people was a progressive, even dangerous thing for Dominique to be doing. His station was a shoestring operation in an astonishingly poor country, and his success is a testament to the power of basic ideas like democracy and human rights.
The years of rule of the Duvaliers and their militia, the TonTon Macoute, are some of the darkest days; Dominique and his wife, Michele Montas, had to spend two long periods in exile from their native land. Over the years Dominique and Demme seemingly became friends, and the interview footage with Dominique is candid, and shows the evolution of Haitian politics—the dread of military juntas, the hopefulness that came with the election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the persistence of Dominique and Montas to return and return to their home, to rebuild the radio station left in tatters and strafed with bullets. And Dominique is a charismatic character, too, unsurprisingly—his oddly explosive speech patterns in English can be a little disorienting, but they aptly carry his sense of moral outrage, along with his persistent faith in the good sense and wisdom of the people of Haiti.
Dominique, finally, was truly a martyr; he was gunned down and killed outside of the Radio Haiti offices in April 2000, a crime for which no one has yet been arrested. More recent interview footage with his wife provides much of the necessary connective tissue for Demme's film; its most moving moment may be when, after a month of silence after its founder's murder, Radio Haiti returns to the air, with Montas at the microphone, giving a restrained and powerful speech about Dominique being with them still, almost the Tom Joad of a free Haiti. There couldn't be a more apt elegy for the horrible end to this admirable life.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: The source material frequently looks bruised, but the transfer here is a thoroughly professional one.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: Some hiss and crackle, but as with the video, what you'd expect with this sort of source material; it's certainly all audible.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
Extras Review: Only subtitles.
Extras Grade: D-
Final CommentsJonathan Demme's character profile is at once mournful and celebratory, conveying a rich sense of Jean Dominique and the power of his Radio Haiti; and, not incidentally, the film serves as a useful historical primer for those who may not have been giving the awful developments in Haiti the attention they so richly merit.
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