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by Mel Valentin

"As original a documentary as you'll find this year."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2007 SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: In 2003, Greg Carr and Noble Smith of the Carr Foundation approached Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Jessica Yu ("In the Realm of the Unreal," "The Living Museum," "Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien") about making a documentary centered on Euripides, the ancient Greek dramatist. Carr and Noble wanted Yu to bring Euripides to modern audiences unfamiliar with his work. At first, Yu dismissed Carr and Noble's idea, but the more she thought about it, the more attractive it seemed. The end result, "Protagonist," is a breathtakingly original, thought-provoking documentary well worth the price of admission.

After immersing herself in Euripides, 5th century B.C.E. Greece, and ancient Greek theater, Yu decided to apply Euripides' themes and dramatic structure to the real world through deeply personal, often troubling stories of struggle and transformation against various forms of ideological and socio-cultural extremism. Yu interviewed more than 200 men and women and eventually settled on four men from different social, cultural, ideological, and ethnic backgrounds: Hans-Joachim Klein, a former German terrorist who lived as a fugitive from German authorities for twenty-five years, Mark Pierpont, an “ex-gay” evangelical minister, Joseph Loya, a former bank robber and gang member, and Mark Salzman, a martial arts student who studied under a brutal, sadistic teacher. Each man found himself at a crossroads, questioning himself, his beliefs, and the people he believed in.

For Hans-Joachim Klein, the son of a Jewish woman who survived the concentration camps (who later committed suicide) and a right-wing German father who considered Adolf Hitler a “good man,” his childhood was filled with brutal beatings by his authoritarian father and his uncaring stepmother. As a teenager, Klein became politically active, first joining student demonstrations protesting German support for the United States in Vietnam, and later becoming a hardcore leftist who saw corporate capitalism and the German government as enemies of the people. Klein developed a reputation as an enforcer and eventually became active in terrorist activities, up the kidnapping of OPEC oil ministers in 1975 that left several men dead. Fleeing capture and recovering from a bullet wound, Klein eventually rethought political violence and went underground from both German authorities and his former associates.

For Mark Pierpont, the son of devout Christians, early struggles with his homosexuality led him to become a Christian missionary and minister. Pierpont saw homosexuality as a sin and a temptation or test he needed to overcome to become a better Christian. Pierpont also faced enormous pressure from his family to rigidly conform to a Christianity that had no room for gays, lesbians, or transgenders. Suppressing his homosexuality, Pierpont married another evangelical, had a son, and actively attempted to convert gays to Christianity and heterosexuality. After living in denial for the better part of two decades, Pierpont was confronted with his inability to suppress his homosexuality and live as a “straight” man.

For Joseph Loya, a modestly happy childhood changed for the worse when his mother died from a kidney ailment and his father, an elder in a Christian church, became violent and abusive. For the next ten years, Loya’s father beat Joseph and his brother Paul for the smallest infraction. Seeing his father almost drown his brother, Loya decided to strike back. After another brutal beating, Loya armed himself with a knife. When his father returned to beat him again, Loya stabbed him with the knife, injuring him seriously. Something changed for Loya that day. He reveled in the power striking back gave him. Hoping to repeat the experience, Loya first engaged in petty crimes, gradually escalating until he became a bank robber. He robbed thirty banks before he captured. In prison, he joined a Latino gang. After the murder of his cellmate, he was put in solitary confinement for more than a year.

For Mark Salzman, being undersized made him the brunt of verbal and physical abuse from his classmates. His life changed, however, when he saw an episode of “Kung Fu,” a television series starring David Carradine as an itinerant Chinese monk in the Old West. Seeing the character’s calm under duress and vicariously enjoying his physical prowess, Salzman first took a mail order course in martial arts. Unhappy with the results, he saw an ad in yellow pages for a Chinese Boxing Institute. His instructor, an American, turned out to be as sadistic as he was athletically gifted. The training sessions included violent sparring that often left Salzman battered, bruised, and with a new best friend. He also obtained a new confidence and certainty about himself and his place in the world. As the sessions became increasingly violent and out-of-control, however, Salzman began to question his teacher’s qualifications.

Rather than simply follow each story separately, Yu interweaves the four stories, hitting each major point in each story before moving on to the next. To reinforce the commonalities between the four men’s stories, Yu relies on a mix of animated titles with words drawn from dramatic structure, talking heads (interviews with the four men), archival footage, and, in a radical departure from the documentary form, interludes featuring masked puppets performing scenes from Euripides’s plays or reenactments of the stories we’ve just heard or are in the process of hearing. As odd as that may sound (and it does sound odd), it works, in exactly the same way Yu wants, to push the idea of universality in particular human experiences as well as the profound psychological insights a fifth century B.C.E. dramatist had into the human condition. And none of it feels forced or contrived. More like this, please.

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originally posted: 05/02/07 14:39:50
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2007 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Independent Film Festival of Boston For more in the 2007 Independent Film Festival of Boston series, click here.

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  30-Nov-2007 (R)
  DVD: 10-Jun-2008



Directed by
  Jessica Yu

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