An assassinated activist and an elusive playwright are the subjects of two new documentaries in theaters this week. While the subjects are worlds apart, the two films have one thing in common: Both are helmed by feature-film directors, in whose hands fact becomes at least as fascinating as their fiction.
"The Agronomist" was directed by Jonathan Demme, who takes occasional breaks from his Hollywood projects ("The Silence of the Lambs," "Philadelphia") to explore real-life subjects he cares deeply about. His new documentary is among his most topical, dealing directly with civil and political strife in Haiti - and indirectly with President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, whose ouster took place between the film's completion and its arrival in US theaters.
The movie's main figure is Jean Dominique, who left his work as an agricultural engineer to become the flamboyantly outspoken boss of Radio Haiti Inter, an independent station he used as a soapbox. So bold were Dominique's broadcasts - and so outraged were many people he took to task - that he had to spend much of the 1990s in exile. He eventually returned to Haiti, but was assassinated in 2000, providing a grim coda to the film.
"The Agronomist" is more about Dominique's ideas and personality than about modern Haitian history itself. But there's little distance between the dissident and the abuses he dissented against, so watching Demme's documentary is both a crash course in the nation's tumultuous past and a provocative visit with one of its most colorful citizens. Dominique was an expert at pushing people's emotional and ideological buttons, and Demme lets him flaunt his arrogant, sometimes irritating manner, as well as his intelligent ideas.
The results are as revealing as they are energetic.
"This So-Called Disaster" comes from Michael Almereyda, also better known for fiction films ("Nadja," "Hamlet"). Here he zeroes in on Sam Shepard, the actor- playwright-director who's known for dodging personal appearances. Making a major exception for Almereyda, the elusive Shepard allowed him to film him as he prepared a production of his play "The Late Henry Moss," with a cast that includes Sean Penn and Nick Nolte.
Almereyda's movie is riveting for several reasons: its inside look at Shepard in action, its vivid account of how a challenging play is brought from printed page to public stage, and its glimpses of Shepard's troubled youth, which inspired key aspects of "Henry Moss."
Its title notwithstanding, "This So-Called Disaster" is anything but.
• "The Agronomist," rated PG-13, contains violence. "This So-Called Disaster," not rated, contains adult material.