Last Updated: February 22, 2008By Tags:

(BY ALI NADERZAD) A surprising new documentary by filmmaker Jessica Yu seems to have made its way through New York and gone away much too quickly. And there really is an element of surprise, since you might not be swayed immediately by the film. I know I was not. In fact, I was a bit dismissive of it, at first. What interest is there in interviewing four, unimportant men? Four more or less average guys who sit before the camera and tell their tale, from birth to adulthood. Surely, as you can imagine this is the simplified version of Protagonist. But that is the format. Four individuals who have lived very different lives go on camera and testify about how they got to where they were. As the film progresses, its inner structure becomes more apparent. Protagonist is about obsessive over one’s individual path, how does a person become who they are today? Yu intersperses the interviews with puppetry plays to full dramatic effect; the puppets reenact Euripides’ plays. What helped set the great Greek tragedian apart from the other giants of his time is the fact that he wrote plays which focused on an individual’s inner turmoil: motives, fears, weaknesses. The consonance between each Euripidean scene and the nature of each man’s life is striking, almost scary. One of these men is a homosexual who’s had to spend a great deal of his life before coming to terms with his sexual orientation. Early on, he was so beleaguered by guilt that he became a preacher and a prominent member of his church. But, as he so recalls, the temptation always seemed nearby. The second man, who hails from Mexico, was violently and repeatedly beaten by his father. But you wouldn’t be able to tell by looking at him recalling his childhood. Especially since as you later find out, he became a hardened criminal, with multiple bank robberies to his name. But he’s sincere, articulate, and when he expresses remorse at what he’s done it seems very sincere. But that’s not what the interview, or the film, is about. It’s truly about
the need (and in some cases, the obsession) to overcome who you are, or to become someone else (or, in an interesting about-face, to accept who you are). Another man operated under false names all over Europe in the 70s and 80s and was responsible for three terrorism-related deaths. He has done his time and now lives a quiet life in France. Besides the fact that the film is technically very watchable (properly cut, no fillers) what makes Protagonist so fascinating is how much these men have suffered to get where they are today, even though some may not qualify their place today as better than where they started from. An absolute must-see!

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