In 2003, documentary filmmaker Jessica Yu was approached about making a film about the life of the ancient Greek dramatist Euripides. After considering, she decided she'd rather make a film about people whose real lives seemed to conform to those of Euripides' tragic protagonists -- extremists who, after being drawn to something for legitimate reasons, become blinded to reality by their unshakable conviction and fanaticism and reach the verge of self-destruction until they realize they have become the opposite of what they set out to be.
Composed of interwoven interviews with four vastly different men -- a former bank robber, an "ex-gay" evangelist, a former German terrorist and a formerly obsessed student of the martial arts-- "Protagonist" follows the arc of the tragic protagonist from character through catharsis and reversal, organizing each step in the progression under a thematic chapter heading and an excerpt from "The Bacchae" performed by puppets. If this description makes the film sound dry or academic, it isn't. Yu's film may be challenging to synopsize, but it's thoroughly engrossing and wildly surprising.
Yu began the project having already selected two subjects-- the bank robber, Joe Loya, and the martial arts student, Mark Salzman. The two men could not have come from more disparate backgrounds: Loya was the son of a Mexican American pastor whose happy childhood was shattered after his mother died and his father began to systematically abuse Joe and his younger brother. Salzman was a middle-class boy from Connecticut who grew up small, anxious, picked-on and fearful of becoming as weak and anxious as his father. While Loya eventually turned to crime, Salzman became the devoted disciple of a drunken and demented kung fu master. (Salzman, an author, also happens to be Yu's husband.)
It took eight months of research, placing ads and asking around for Yu and producers Elise Pearlstein and Susan West to find the other two subjects -- Mark Pierpont and Hans-Joachim Klein. Like Loya, Pierpont grew up a pious child in a zealously religious home. Aware from a young age that he was gay, he dedicated his life to suppressing his orientation and preaching an anti-gay message. The son of a brutal Nazi cop and a Holocaust survivor mother who committed suicide when he was a year old, Klein became political as a student. Horrified by the injustice he saw around the world, he joined an offshoot of the Baader-Meinhof gang, eventually becoming involved in a kidnapping attempt that left three people dead.
Initially, Yu wanted to include women among her subjects but found that only five or six among the 200 people considered fit the mold -- which is not much of a representative sample, but, still, it makes you curious to see what they did.
Men, she found (though some might argue with her), were more prone to pursue an obsession past the point of reason, a quality that has lately had a much greater effect on our world than the ability to reason through a problem, to compromise or to change course when it becomes clear that the first one isn't working.
"Protagonist." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. In limited release.