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Great (Wave)Lengths: Radio as a Transmitter of Resistance Through Language and the Explication of Civil Society
by Ryan Baker
Jonathan Demme’s film, The Agronomist, is a film that chronicles the story of Jean Dominique, a Haitian radio station owner who dedicated his life to broadcasting “the truth” to the Haitian public, as Haiti’s political structure oscillated between dictatorship, democracy and military rule. Many view this film as Demme intended: as a “celebration of this dynamic man, [Jean Dominique], and his legacy” (The Agronomist 2003). However, in this paper I argue that The Agronomist is a film that shows how Dominique uses radio to combat structural and institutional violence, makes an argument about how language and discourse can create inclusivity amongst a group of people, and ultimately reproduces ideas of alterity.
The film follows a progression of the history of political rule in Haiti, which provides the premise for how Radio Haiti and Jean Dominique operated within the context of Haitian political culture. It is revealed that Jean Dominique was originally an agronomist, and he describes his work in the Haitian countryside to aid what he saw as agricultural destruction under the oppressive policies of “Papa Doc” Duvalier; Dominique was ultimately jailed for six months for aiding farmers in the countryside. From this, the film suddenly jumps to showcasing Dominique’s love for film, and the political importance he sees it having. This proves to be a segue to Dominique’s two-year stint as a freelance journalist at Radio Haiti, and his eventual purchase of the station. When “Papa Doc” Duvalier dies, Dominique increases his efforts to promote the radio station. The film the documents how Radio Haiti operated under military rule, as violence and torture spread throughout Haiti. When Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected President, Dominique was considered a traitor by the Haitian elite for supporting him. However, this did not stop him. Shortly after, Aristide was overthrown in a coup, and Radio Haiti was specifically targeted; this led to the Dominiques fleeing to New York for a second time. When Aristide is reinstated as President of Haiti, which allows for the Dominiques to return to Haiti. They proceed to lengthen the broadcasting antenna of Radio Haiti, so as to reach 95 percent of the Haitian people. As Aristide is, again, forced to step down from power, Radio Haiti experiences terrorism, as elites condemn Dominique’s critiques of the international community and the political culture of Haiti.The violence directed towards Radio Haiti culminates in the assassination of Jean Dominique on April 3, 2000. The remainder of the film documents Jean Dominique’s funeral, and shows how Radio Haiti continued to operate in the years following Dominique’s death.
The Agronomist, through its footage of violent repression and impoverished citizens in the countryside, shows how the institutional and structural violence dominated Haiti’s political and social cultures. Throughout the film, footage of military officers violently beating peaceful protestors showcases how institutional violence came to dominate political culture. As power was shifted from Papa Doc to Baby Doc, violent state suppression was used to quell protests. These acts were meant to suppress any counterculture or forces of resistance. Structural violence was also highlighted by the film, by showing footage of the dichotomy between the impoverished and the elite of Haiti. Often, footage of the well off military leaders was juxtaposed by peasants bathing in mud in the countryside, or by the tumultuous labor that peasants were resigned to.
The culmination of structural and institutional violence led to a fragmented, downtrodden society. The film shows how Jean Dominique used the radio to create the sort of civil society that Gramsci posits - capable of resisting institutional violence as discussed by Phillipe Bourgois, and the sort of structural violence explained by Jason De Leon and Paul Farmer. In the wake of each political uprising, Jean Dominique uses Radio Haiti as a means to engage with Haitians, spreading ideas of democracy and resistance to suppressed Haitians. Antonio Gramsci says, “creating a new culture does not only mean one individual’s ‘original’ discoveries’ . . . [it] means the diffusion in a critical form of truths already discovered” (Gramsci 1971). In attempting to create a counterculture, or evidence of a civil society, Dominique uses this approach to “culture.” This was most explicit in his live broadcast in Saut D’eau, an impoverished city in rural Haiti. While on site, he describes Saut D’eau as a “city of misery,” and as a city “overwhelmed with needs” (The Agronomist 2003). While documenting the turmoil in Saut D’eau, he also provides hope for those listening, by stating that, “an invisible wall permits all to talk about their lives without fear” (The Agronomist 2003). By broadcasting the subtle resistance of an impoverished city to the rest of Haiti, Dominique encouraged Haitians to engage with each other in dialogue about change and resistance, despite the social fragmentation spurred by structural and institutional violence. Dominique used technology to aid the explicit creation of a sort of Gramscian realization of civil society throughout Haiti in response to institutional and structural violence.
Furthermore, The Agronomist shows that the use of language is an explicit act that both enables individuals and is capable of forming discourse. It is the same discourse that Foucault discusses, as modes of representation, that Dominique attempts to create. In The Agronomist, Dominique states that, “I started, step by step, to introduce two things: Creole . . . and information” (The Agronomist 2003). Haitians dominantly speak Creole, yet the majority of radio programming at the time broadcasted in French. The use of language effectively barred a large amount of Haitians from accessing radio. In The Agronomist, Jean Dominique shows that the explicit introduction of Creole to radio broke down an invisible barrier and created a level of inclusivity that had not previously existed. He explains Creole as a language that has emphasis and attitude; he conveys this by making noises that are understood by Haitians to have particular and specific meanings. “Creole, as a language, is not just a language of words. It is a language of ‘Mhmm, uhuh’ . . . and those signs were understood all over the country! Implications!” (The Agronomist 2003). While the language that Radio Haiti used was important, it was the way in which Jean Dominique introduced information on Radio Haiti that was most significant. The Agronomist shows that Dominique created a discourse about democracy to reprimand the oppressive state. Dominique did this by carefully selecting words that were viewed positively by the Haitian population; he then used these words interchangeably to produce an encompassing discourse that the Haitians listening to Radio Haiti supported. This discourse was based on the words “freedom”; “democracy”; “truth”; and “law.” By using these words interchangeably, Dominique produced a fanatic discourse that the Haitian people could rally behind. Jonathan Demme perfectly highlights how Dominique first used language as a way to provide inclusivity in a hostile socio-political culture, and then tailored his word selection to create ideas of what opposition to the political structure would look like.
Finally, The Agronomist reproduces ideas of alterity by the way Demme reveals Dominique’s political views. As Jean Dominique speaks of the turmoil and resistance to political power and violence, his word selection is crafted around binary thought that Foucault warns against. When speaking of “democracy”, he phrases it as in opposition to “suppression.” “Truth” is opposed to the “lies” promoted by the state. “Freedom,” he argues, comes with democracy, and is opposed to the slavery of impoverishment. By using this sort of language, Dominique pits the people of Haiti against those in power; in essence, Dominique uses this language to produce a mentality of “us vs. them.” Dominique recognizes, and embraces, his promulgation of alterity in his broadcasts. When speaking of his coverage of Saut D’eau, he says, “. . .it was something fantastic. . . I listened and recorded the expression of hunger, of resistance . . . against them. And who is ‘them’? The macout, the elite” (The Agronomist 2003). Dominique uses binary systems of language to propel the opposition of Haitians to the state, rather than using what intersections existed between the state and the Haitian population to engage in a dialogue of resistance.
In the current age of uprisings against oppressive regimes in the Middle East, much emphasis is put on the political and economic factors that spur these revolts. Often, popular media and socially relevant factors are easily dismissed. However, The Agronomist provides a detailed account of how “culture” can be explicated and utilized in the midst of oppressive political rule. By using radio to broadcast the struggles of impoverished Haitians, Jean Dominique showed how opposition could still be had in the face of structural and institutional violence. He further used language as a way to create a discourse about what a resistance movement would strive for. Finally, Dominique used ideas of alterity in his broadcasts to further produce a unified sense of opposition amongst the Haitian people. Jonathan Demme’s choice of footage created a film that goes beyond telling the heartwarming story of a radical journalist - it shows how “culture”, language and discourse can be used to mobilize people in the midst of political and social oppression.
Gramsci, Antonio. Selections From the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. New York: International Publishers, 1971.
The Agronomist. DVD. Directed by Jonathan Demme. 2003; USA/Haiti: Clinica Estetico, 2003.