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Osama & The Agronomist
Reviewed by Dennis Morton
Aired 5/18 and 5/19, 2004

Locally, the past few months have been great for movie lovers. First there was the brilliant Canadian film, The Barbarian Invasion. Next came the wonderful Scottish film, Wilbur Wants To Kill Himself. That was followed by the superb Russian film, The Return. And now, playing at The Delmar Theatre and The Nickelodeon in downtown Santa Cruz, two extraordinary films: Osama, and The Agronomist.

First, a few words about Osama.

This film was made in Afghanistan, the first feature film to come from that beleaguered nation since the overthrow of the Taliban. Osama is set in the time of the Taliban and tells the story of a girl with one foot in childhood and the other about to step into puberty.

Most of us have read and heard about the Taliban’s repression of women and children, but to watch this film is to have the sense that we are witnessing these crimes in the actual moment. This is a work of fiction that feels like a documentary.

Shot using borrowed and donated equipment and supplies, Osama cost less to make than the average tank that many suburban American families use for the daily shopping – less than $25,000, according to the production notes.

It’s really remarkable what can be done with little more than imagination, determination, resourcefulness, and talent. The emotional impact of Osama is stunning. Imagine that your mother, or your daughter, or you yourself could not walk on the streets unless accompanied by a male. That could sound like merely an inconvenience imposed on over half of the population by male bullies under the imprimatur of religious zealotry. But when it translates into slow starvation and constant humiliation, it’s easier to see it as a whole culture gone mad. I found myself in the uncomfortable position of beginning to hate the Taliban. Only by catching myself in the act of hating was I able to back off a bit and view the movie with a larger eye.

First time feature director, Saddiq Barmak, does not romanticize his story. But for all the truly awful and inhumane behavior of the Taliban, Barmak’s lens is wide enough to capture the improvisational survival skills that surface from time to time among persecuted people. It’s a small miracle that a shred of humanity survived the reign of the Taliban. And it’s a small miracle that Saddiq Barmak was able to make this movie. Do not miss it.

I’m left with little time to say much about The Agronomist. If Osama is a work of fiction that feels like a documentary, Jonathan Demme’s film is a documentary that feels like a work of fiction, in that it’s a portrait of the life of a man who seems too large, too heroic ever to have actually existed. The Agronomist in Demme’s film is Jean Dominique, who was born of well to do parents but whose heart, from an early age, was with the peasants of his native Haiti.

Jean Dominique was trained as an agronomist but eventually found himself with the opportunity to purchase a radio station in the capital. He called his station Radio Haiti Inter and from it, he and his wife and colleagues challenged a series of brutal dictators with the truth. Frequently he was forced into exile. When the political climate changed, even temporarily, he would return and pick up where he left off. Funny, restless, brave, heroic even, Jean Dominique and his wife Michele became the stuff of legend. Jonathan Demme has done the world a service by making us aware of this indefatigable man.

For KUSP’s Film Gang, this is Dennis Morton.