Review: Jessica Yu’s PROTAGONIST

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Jessica Yu’s Protagonist is the sort of unusual documentary that tempts critics to try to show that they are smarter than the director–smarter not so much about the depth of their knowledge of the subject at hand, but about the lofty scholarly rightness of their own sense of cinematic form.

Why more so regarding Protagonist than other docs?

Because the film is quite challenging–even heady–in its complexity, in its density of information and its innovate style.

Best to count on watching Protagonist more than once to dig into the core of its brilliance.

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Four Storytellers Become Everyman

In Protangonist, Yu follows four confessors–men who sit in front of the camera to reveal separate but parallel life stories, each comprised of misguided and regretful behavior for which each has suffered consequences that eventually catapulted them to the discovery of their true selves. There is an accomplished martial artist who took up karate as a result of having been bullied in school, and realized that he in turn made the mistake of using that solution to bully others.

There is a bank robber who took to the antisocial excitement of crime, of exposing others to fear, in order to compensate for the isolation and despair he felt as a child who was abused by his father. There is a gay man who tried to force himself to be heterosexual by becoming a preacher who railed against homosexuality, but eventually realized that fighting against his natural sexual inclinations was just plain wrong.

There is the German terrorist who blew up buildings for what he believed to be a righteous and socially conscious cause, but was relieved when he was finally caught and punished because he had come to understand that killing people doesn’t mesh with righteous causes.

By highlighting the connections between these seemingly disparate personal histories, Yu creates a larger tale–one with an everyman quality that enables viewers to reflect on their own struggles to uphold their sense of morality in an imperfect world that’s rife with lures leading to the abandonment of inner truths and righteousness.

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Yu’s Dramatic Effects

To suggest, clarify and strengthen the links between these four personal confessions and their greater everyman implications, Yu sets their storytelling within the context of Euripides’ classical Greek dramas. They are protagonists in the universal struggle for self-definition.

She defines chapters with title cards in Greek and English, with illustrations that look like they’ve been lifted from ancient Greek pottery.

Even more significantly, she uses a Greek chorus of puppets–they’re crudely hewn wooden masks with fabric bodies and unseen puppeteers manipulate them with visible metal rods–to deliver appropriate snippets of Euripides’s plays (in ancient Greek, with English subtitles) that serve as an unusual, rather disengaged but binding voice over narrative, and to act out the child abuse, bank robberies and other crucial moments in the real life stories being told.

The unusual use of puppets effectively boosts the documentary’s dramatic impact, which is further heightened by the use of home movies and archival news footage of karate competitions, evangelical prayer meetings, coverage of chaos following terrorist bombings and the like.

Yu’s assemblage of elements is a fascinating exercise in documentary filmmaking. But if wouldn’t be nearly as effective if she weren’t also an excellent interviewer. The storytellers she’s found are compelling and articulate people, but she’s clearly served them well–first by establishing an environment in which they felt safe to relinquish their self censorship and, second, by being so respectful of her subjects in the process of editing.

Pushing the Documentaries Envelope

Protagonist is a film that’s worth seeing more than once. In fact, it almost requires a second or third viewing for you to really get the brilliance, subtleties and strength of Yu’s conceit and the consistency with which she maintains and exploits it throughout the film.

Protagonist also pushes the boundaries of documentary filmmaking in an interesting way. We’re used to seeing narrative features take on elements of documentary filmmaking–the appearance of archival news footage that’s integrated into the fictional narrative of a film like Forrest Gump, for example or the use of broadcast media’s lower third titles to establish identity or location. But it’s rarer for documentary filmmakers to rely on such overtly dramatic elements to illustrate their thesis. When it’s justified and works, as it does in Protagonist, the technique not only enhances the filmmaker’s argument, but also has great entertainment value for the viewer.

protagonistposterFilm Details:

  • Title: Protagonist
  • Director: Jessica Yu
  • Release Date: January 2007
  • Production Companies: Diorama Films, Red Envelope Entertainment
  • Distributors: IFC Films (2007) (USA) (theatrical), Film1 (2012) (Netherlands) (TV) (limited), Lorber HT Digital (2008) (USA), (all media), Red Envelope Entertainment (2007) (USA) (DVD)
  • Languages: English, German, Greek
  • Tagline: What do a bank robber, a terrorist, a kung fu student, and a gay evangelist have in common? They’re all just like you.

NOTE: This review was written in 2007, and first appeared on Documentaries.About.com

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