Review: Jessica Yu's 'Protagonist'

From 2007, here is an early documentary review from Christopher Campbell of an original nonfiction feature by Jessica Yu.

Protagonist Jessica Yu
IFC Films

This review of Jessica Yu’s Protagonist was originally published on the movie blog Cinematical on December 1, 2007.

When the Academy announced its shortlist of contenders for the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature last week, I was surprised to find Jessica Yu‘s Protagonist left out. It isn’t that I especially like the film, but Yu is an Oscar-winner (for her 1996 short Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien), and despite my opinion of it, her latest is one of the most original docs I’ve seen in a long time. Of course, that could be the problem. Although it fits within the rules of eligibility, Protagonist, a film about Euripidean dramatic structure and four real men whose lives correspond with it, doesn’t necessarily fit in with the normal crop of films nominated in the category.

On the day of the shortlist announcement, I was told that the Academy considers feature docs to be “extended news stories,” which raises the awareness of an issue they feel is worth telling the world about. Now, this comment was likely just speculation — and seemingly uninformed and cynical speculation at that — but it is nonetheless a perception on the part of many serious nonfiction film fans. Despite the fact that I am not one of the many lovers of Protagonist, I would make no fuss if it won an Oscar, let alone was nominated for one. At least I’d admire the Academy for recognizing something cinematically interesting.

Protagonist profiles four men with backgrounds that seem to have nothing in common. Joe Loya is a reformed bank robber. Mark Pierpont is a Christian missionary who “cured” himself of his homosexuality. Mark Salzman is an unlikely martial artist. And Hans-Joachim Klein was a leftist radical turned big-league terrorist during the 1970s. Yet all of their stories fit into the framework of Greek tragedy, specifically the ancient drama of Euripides.

Cinematically, their tales are inter-cut with each other and broken up into a multitude of acts coinciding with Euripidean plot points. These breaks are given animated title cards, which introduce chapters such as “Provocation,” “Opportunity,” “Catharsis,” “Threshold,” and “Resolution,” and feature scenes from Euripides’ plays using puppets and ancient Greek dialogue. The puppets also show up throughout the film to reenact the men’s stories, though they retain their ancient Greek costume and remain in sparsely decorated sets.

It may sound confusing, but on screen, it is less so — yet only if you get what Yu is doing with the film. Fortunately, I glanced at a written synopsis prior to my viewing, because the documentary offers no setup or explanation, either at its start or anywhere throughout (unless, as it seemed, the film’s opening was accidentally cut-off at the screening I attended). Without knowing the purpose of the film, Protagonist would likely just seem to be a weird, artsy documentary. Of course, it is a weird, artsy documentary. But if you know that going in, you can get past the pretense and conceit quickly enough to enjoy the few parts of the documentary that are actually entertaining in addition to being creative and interesting.

Of the four men, only two of them, Salzman and Klein, have truly engaging stories, which is pretty disappointing considering Yu claims to have considered 200 candidates. Loya, the bank robber, and Pierpont, the “ex-gay” missionary, do have interesting stories, but there isn’t a lot to them, and the telling of them seems stretched long and thin. Certainly, neither is as good a storyteller as the martial artist, whose tale is the least interesting. He overshadows the others by being such an excited and exciting speaker, filling his boyhood kung-fu account with humor and spastic enthusiasm. Too bad it turns out Salzman is in fact Yu’s husband, a fact that ethically hurts his role in the film, even if only in hindsight — the information is not given in the film itself.

As for Klein, he is too interesting. His story could easily fill up a whole documentary focused solely on him. This is a guy who grew up the son of a Nazi cop, who participated in the turbulent political era of ’60s Germany, who joined up with Carlos the Jackal in the violent OPEC raid and kidnapping of 1975, and who was somewhat involved in the Air France hijacking of 1976 (familiar now to those who saw The Last King of Scotland). Although he isn’t the most appealing storyteller of the four, his background is definitely the most fascinating.

All four of the men also fall into one big problem: their stories are force-formatted to fit the concept of the film. Typically, documentary filmmakers find subjects first and develop a film based on what the subject has to say. With Protagonist, Yu started with the idea and then found subjects that could be molded into that idea. It probably sounds more manipulative than it actually was. However, a lot of the forcedness comes through clearly, such as the deliberate associations between the subjects — Salzman discussing male bonding is inter-cut with Pierpont talking about his attraction to men, for example. Particularly with Klein’s highly disconnected experience, the attempt to parallel the subjects was obviously a difficult task, yet not in the way that we should consider it an achievement.

On top of all of these problems, Protagonist is a bit sloppy and inconsistent in its narrative. Sometimes exposition is presented with an anonymous narrator (likely Yu), while at other times info is relayed with subtitles. Still, it is shot well, and for a primarily talking-head-style documentary, the cinematography is surprisingly appealing. It really isn’t at all shocking that the film has its fans and supporters. Ultimately, though, it suffers for the same reasons that a lot of “issue” documentaries are problematic: it is way too heavy-handed, only in style and concept rather than preachiness.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.