Stories that others tell us about ourselves can be seductive in their certainty -- they provide distraction, delicious and damning, from the burden of figuring out our own. Jessica Yu's curious documentary Protagonist is an exploration of extremism, but its stylistic framework provides a more puzzling and provocative question: What is the power of language and narrative in shaping the self?
Originally commissioned by the Carr Foundation to direct a documentary on the Greek playwright Euripides, Yu decided to bring the tragedian's themes to contemporary light. Over the course of eight months, Yu and her producers sought out individuals whose lives seemed to follow the trajectory of Euripides' tragic extremists -- heroes whose righteous quests led to fanaticism. Yu means for her viewers to have a meta-ponder -- she just about bonks us on the head with intertitles suggesting different themes: Character. Catharsis. Resolution.
Protagonist draws on the fascinating stories of four men: a leftist-terrorist from Germany, a devout "ex-gay" missionary determined to exorcise homosexuality from his and others' lives, a stick-up artist who knocked over more than 30 banks, and a young man in thrall to an abusive martial-arts master. Yu cuts together their narratives according to a Euripides-esque story arc and punctuates the men's monologues with unusual interludes -- rod-puppet restagings of the playwright's work, most notably The Bacchae. This last touch would be more art-school-than-thou if it weren't for the puppets' bizarre expressiveness, which mirrors the dramatic way Protagonist's subjects recount the events of their lives.
Hans-Joachim Klein was born to a Jewish concentration-camp survivor who committed suicide when Klein was just a child. Klein turned against his father -- a violent policeman and Nazi sympathizer -- and sought out leftist causes, eventually becoming a "high on rage" berserker who participated in the high-profile kidnapping of OPEC ministers and the Entebbe hijacking in 1976.
Mark Piermont's family hewed to a harsh Christianity -- the kind where Christ's compassion did not extend to boys who cry. As a young man, Piermont turned to the church to purge him of the "sin" of his homosexual desires and went so far as to serve as a missionary all over the world, marry, and have a son.
Joe Loya also grew up in a religious household, but one headed by a father who subjected his sons to unrelenting violence until Loya stabbed him near-fatally in the neck. Loya embarked upon a life of crime after that, terming himself an Ubermenschian "religious fanatic for evil."
During his childhood, Yu's husband and Iron & Silk memoirist Mark Salzman was constantly set upon by bullies, until he discovered the allure of an explosive martial-arts master who made his young charges put grapes in foam mannequin heads so the boys could practice poking out opponents' eyes.
Protagonist's subjects are a fearsomely eloquent lot. Aside from the narrative commonalities Yu delineates with her sharp editing and intertitled chapters, the men share some provocative psychological patterns in their "extreme" periods: ferociously dualistic thinking, a totalizing need for control and certainty, the search for what Salzman calls "a philosophical framework that made me at ease in every situation in life." They are the houses that reaction-formation built.
Until each of them face a wrenching realization of what they have become, the men are in thrall to the illusion of escape, without realizing that what we escape to is inextricably tied to what we are escaping from. Like a dog on a leash who can only run in a circle, each of the men are fleeing a sense of powerlessness and suffering, but wind up trapped in the same pattern from which he sought escape. Worse, even, because each one becomes that which he fears the most. What better way to deny that one is at the whim of a cruel and quixotic god (or father or bully) than to try to become one?
All of the men are now writers and performers, which perhaps accounts for the unflinching regard with which they examine their own lives. Each comes across powerfully – Klein's keen gaze under his wild hair, Piermont's sadly expressive eyes, Loya's genial charm and knack for vivid turns of phrase, and Salzman's terrific energy and humor. They manage to animate a film that seems oddly static at points, for all the high drama of its subjects' plunges into extremism and moments of reversal.
Much of the staged quality results from Yu's narrative inspiration -- Euripides himself was no stranger to clunking deus ex machina endings and perambulatory prologues. But at times, even her subjects' talent for self-reflection stifles the unsettling, unknowable questions that such a documentary should pose. To some extent, the story arc and the men's retellings are almost too neat and pre-chewed for a film unusual enough to feature puppet stagings of ancient Greek tragedy.
Yu's tidy thematic narrative doesn't allow an examination of the elements in the men's childhoods that might lead them out of extremism, for example, even as the motivations into radicalism are almost over-explained. For all its subjects' insistence on the perils of overly dualistic thinking, Protagonist indulges in a little of that itself, and its tightly shaped thematic chapters can hamper viewers' efforts to structure or create their own narratives about the men's lives. Yu's film raises inadvertent questions, perhaps: How much of the self can or should be told as a coherent story? How do we tell a story of who we are that is full, elastic, and respectful of the stories others tell about their lives? And how do we tell the story of who others are to us?
Although the film's structure can occasionally lend itself to airless overdeterminacy, Protagonist is for the most part a compelling character study of estrangement, extremism and epiphany towards more complicated truths. If Protagonist allowed in a bit more doubt and uncertainty, it might have embodied the hard-won awareness that "all I know is that I don't know," as Klein puts it -- and made the leap from an excellent film to an unanswerable, unforgettable one.