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.)