Jean Léopold Dominique’s craggy good looks, rapid-fire eloquence and grand gestures would have served him well on the stage or in film. He was certainly a character, though not an actor, who believed unwaveringly in his native Haiti as it stumbled toward democracy. His optimism was boundless, whether it was as an agronomist who owned no land or later as a radio journalist who challenged corruption and crime in a land where reality outdoes any fantasy.
“I have no weapon other than my journalist’s profession, my microphone,” he said in a commentary in late 1999, “and my unshakable faith as a militant for change.”
The next spring Dominique, the spirit of Radio Haiti Inter and the subject a new documentary by the Academy Award-winning director Jonathan Demme, was shot dead along with his driver as they arrived at the station. That it happened during Haiti’s flirtation with what passed for democracy was only the beginning of the betrayals.
Today the few people who were arrested are free, sprung from prison by rebels after a politically crippled President Jean Bertrand Aristide fled the country in February. Those who hired the killers have not been found.
Dominique has passed into that spectral pantheon, his name on walls and lips as cause and inspiration: Jean Dominique Lives. The theme suffuses “The Agronomist,” Mr. Demme’s documentary, which opens on Friday at the Lincoln Plaza and Angelika in Manhattan.
The film is a reminder that while radio personalities in the United States wage mock battles over the freedom to be vulgar, journalists like Dominique and his wife, Michele Montas, risked death and exile. The film is also prescient.
“The irony is that the film is opening at a moment when, however briefly, attention is focused on Haiti,” Mr. Demme said in an interview in Manhattan while working on a remake of “The Manchurian Candidate.” “What Jean has to say in the film sheds light on today. He is still doing his job.”
Mr. Demme has long been fascinated by Haitian culture. “I fell in love with the great Haitian aspiration for democracy,” he said. “That starts dovetailing with being an American citizen, and that means being a citizen of a country that has played an incredibly toxic and destructive role in the course of Haiti’s history. One of the reasons our government is able to behave so cavalierly is we Americans care so little about Haiti. Why? Because we know so little about Haiti.”
It is difficult not to care when confronted by Dominique. Mr. Demme first met him while filming “Haiti: Dreams of Democracy” after the departure of President-for-Life Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986.
Dominique was charming and committed, worldly yet intensely proud of his Haitian roots. He grew up accompanying his father, an import-export broker, throughout the Haitian countryside and later studied agronomy in France. There he immersed himself in French film, a love that on his return to Haiti inspired him not only to form the country’s first cinema club but also to be a co-director of “But I Am Beautiful, Too,” the first movie filmed in Haiti by Haitians.
Dominique spent six years as an agronomist, helping peasants grow cocoa and rice. But the work also provoked the ire of landowners, who persuaded the authorities to jail him for six months. He eventually gave up agronomy to work in radio, first as a freelancer and later as the owner of Radio Haiti Inter, where he introduced such radical concepts as broadcasting in Creole, the language of the masses, as well as reporting on political and human rights issues.
His journalism twice got him exiled, both times in New York, first under Duvalier and then in 1991 under the military regime that had ousted his friend Mr. Aristide. It was during the latter exile that Mr. Demme and his colleague, Peter Saraf, began filming interviews that became the documentary.
Although Mr. Demme had conceived a documentary that would have a happy ending ? with the journalist returning to his homeland and his microphone ? he now admits that he also thought of those initial interviews as a screen test.
“I was struck by his incredible charisma, his star power, if you will,” Mr. Demme said. “I really felt immediately, Here’s a guy who’d have a terrific presence in feature films. He reminded me of Jean-Louis Barrault, one of the greatest French stage actors of all time.”
Several of the sessions they filmed were related to a stage project Mr. Demme had later envisioned for Dominique. He thought of presenting him at the Public Theater in New York as a “Spalding Gray of the Southern Hemisphere” in a show called “The History of Haitian Cinema.” In it Dominique would have mined Haitian history and culture for great films yet to be shot.
“We’d go to dramatic lighting and dramatic underscoring, and Jean with his incredible storytelling gifts would lure us into picturing this amazing scene from Haitian cinema,” Mr. Demme said. “And then `Bing!’ the lights would pop on, and Jean would say, `Of course that scene hasn’t been filmed yet.’ “
The happy ending, however, proved elusive when Dominique returned in 1995 to find his radio station ransacked by the military after the coup. Caught up in rebuilding, he told Mr. Demme that he had no time to continue the documentary. “The tapes I had accumulated with Jean were put on a shelf,” Mr. Demme said. “I pulled them out on April 3, 2000, the day he was killed. That is when the scope of the documentary changed in a profound way.”
The story of Dominique became a damning portrait of a country where justice itself was in exile. His story intermingles with that of Mr. Aristide. Where he once called his onetime friend’s first victory “the most wonderful experience of my life,” he was now challenging him on the radio to stop the corruption swirling about his political party.
“You come to Jean Dominique’s microphone, and you have got to be prepared to tell the truth,” Mr. Demme said. “Horrifyingly, Aristide dodged the hard questions and came back with homilies and metaphors. There was an instant rupture between the two. For me it is also a reference point for Aristide’s spiraling away from what he had once been and into the political animal he was to become.”
Dominique’s assassination and the investigation of it ? in which judges were threatened, witnesses vanished and others were killed ? did little to dispel those fears. On Christmas 2002 a gunman tried unsuccessfully to assassinate his wife, Ms. Montas. A few months later a watered down indictment failed to single out who had ordered any of the violence.
Ms. Montas now says that Mr. Aristide ? whom she and her husband had once supported without hesitation ? was complicit in at least the cover-up.
Mr. Aristide had repeatedly vowed that the family would find justice, but the investigation was hobbled by one obstacle after another.
“It is a betrayal,” said Ms. Montas, who lives in New York and works at the United Nations. “I was once sure he couldn’t have given the order to kill Jean. Now I don’t know.”
Although her husband is the center of the film, she is in the most riveting scene. One month after the assassination she returns to the air, delivering a statement that blends tropical magic realism with defiance worthy of the French Resistance. Jean Dominique, she explained, never died, thanks to a magic spell that rendered him invisible to his would-be killers.
“Yes,” she said, her face a portrait of love and resolve. “Jean Léopold Dominique, free man, citizen of this torn land, is alive. Good morning, Jean.”
Since that day Dominique continues to attract others to his cause. Wyclef Jean, whom Mr. Demme approached about contributing a song to the movie, insisted on doing the entire soundtrack. The music ranges from hip-hop to folky and mournful, with lyrics in Creole.
“As a Haitian kid whose parents came to America and told me to get an education to try and make something of myself, Jean Dominique inspires me,” Mr. Jean said. “Here is this guy who spoke beautifully and was educated in Paris, and he still felt he wanted to go back to his country to make a difference.”
That, too, is part of his mystique, his ability to get others to believe despite bitter experience. Mr. Demme said that in making the documentary, he had a small epiphany.
“I’d look at the film and go, `Wow, Jean was a little mad, wasn’t he?’ ” he said. “It’s a terrific madness, but he looks to be a little mad. I was very aware of his passion. But when I see the way his thoughts abstracted into the message of the film, the Don Quixote aspect of Jean Dominique hits me.”
To live in a benighted land and see beauty or to hope for democracy after dozens of coups perhaps requires a little madness. So, too, does looking for justice and the day when Jean Dominique’s killers and the men who sent them are themselves judged.
But of course that scene hasn’t been filmed yet.