Village Voice 11/27/07
TV Guide 10/30/07
New York Times 11/30/07
Entertainment Weekly 11/30/07
Los Angeles Times 1/28/07
November 27, 2007
Women are from Mars; Men from Greece
In her quest to uncover modern day Greek drama, Jessica Yu finds that guys are tragic
After seeing In the Realms of the Unreal, Jessica Yu's lyrical documentary/ animation film on the extraordinary Chicago-artist-by-night and custodian-by-day Henry Darger, the Carr Foundation approached Yu to make a film about the fifth-century-B.C. dramatist Euripides.
Yu was intrigued, but after spending a summer researching the playwright and rereading his plays, she opted not to make a documentary about him, but rather to use the structure of his plays‹especially The Bacchae‹as a jumping-off point for exploring a type of character that she and Euripides share a fascination for: the Extremist.
In Protagonist, Yu takes her cue from Euripides' depiction of Dionysus as a protagonist and antagonist all rolled into one‹and transfers classic tragedy to a modern-day, non-polytheistic context by deftly interweaving the varied experiences of four men, each of whom lived on the edge of extremity before recognizing he could go no further without possibly annihilating himself. Through their transformations, Yu pays tribute to the signposts of classical Greek (and, by extension, western) drama: conflict, revelation, catharsis, and resolution. These individually powerful stories are connected, amplified, and made to resonate even more meaningfully with each other through Yu's ingenious employment of wooden stick puppets, whose faces are inspired by Greek masks. The puppets act, in effect, as a Greek chorus, and occasionally re-enact critical moments in the life story of one the film's four subjects.
At the outset, Yu knew she wanted to tell the stories of two men. The first, Joe Loya, grew up with a father who brutally terrorized him and his brother following the death of their mother. When Loya finally retaliated in self-defense, he unleashed a self-vindicating rage that in his mind justified an escalating criminal career as a bank robber. After committing 30 robberies in Mexico, he was caught and sent to prison where he gradually came to terms with what he had done and why. The second is Mark Saltzman, an author and, as it happens, Yu's husband. As a child, Saltzman was the kid everybody picked on, but his life changed when he discovered kung fu and Keith Carradine. Throughout his teen years, Saltzman trained obsessively with a local martial arts expert who had a penchant for putting his students in deadly chokes and headlocks. The day his master went too far, Saltzman was forced to admit that his sensei was a sadistic psycho, and thus changed his own life.
In searching for her two other subjects, Yu, her two producers Elise Pearlstein and Susan West, and several interns spent eight months combing the Internet, magazines, and personal contacts, searching for individuals who not only had pursued obsessions until they crashed and burned, but could also, Yu emphasizes, "step outside the experience to reflect upon it, and tell a story." Yu says she and her team were seeking women, but among the hundreds of individuals they considered, none of the women's stories fully fit the Euripidean model in which the protagonist is led by an idée fixe only to realize, often too late, that he had been courting disaster.
Yu's extensive empirical research revealed that in life (as in the movies) the arc of this sort of drama happens more frequently to men. The director says that once the women she interviewed realized "they were on a self-destructive path, they pulled back, to change course." But this self-awareness had dampened the dramatic impact of their stories. The men on the other hand, Yu says wryly, "kept going till they hit a wall. And that's what we wanted‹we wanted to see them hit that wall." Yu attributes the distinction in how men and women approach their personal obsessions to the difference in brain formation. "Women excel at multitasking, and so, if necessary, they are better at changing direction."
(In her earlier films, Breathing Lesson: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien and In the Realms of the Unreal, Yu explored the double theme of childhood trauma and male vulnerability. In making Protagonist, she says she came to understand that for her subjects, extreme experiences were a reaction to both and were a "form of initiation into manhood.")
To round out the quartet of characters, Yu and her team finally settled on Hans-Joachim Klein, a former German leftist and member of Revolutionary Cells (an offshoot of the notorious Baader-Meinhof gang). In a botched attempt to kidnap 11 OPEC ministers in the 1970s, in which three people died, Klein was badly wounded. Later he renounced his terrorist activities. The fourth subject, Mark Pierpont, is a former Evangelical preacher, whose religious fervor masked his homosexual desire until the lie proved too psychically costly.
As an ensemble, these four subjects demonstrate what is best expressed in the chorus's final speech in The Bacchae: "The gods appear in many forms/Carrying with them unwelcome things/What people thought would happen never did/What they did not expect, the gods made happen/That's what this story has revealed."
back to top
Beyond the Multiplex
Awards season begins. No, really. Plus: Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney make family dysfunction funny (no, really).
By Andrew O'Hehir
"Protagonist" I'm not sure how I can sell you on Jessica Yu's documentary "Protagonist" without employing a whole string of adjectives and without making it sound either hopelessly pretentious or New Agey or both. Well, the fact is that Yu's film about four totally unrelated men and their struggles toward some version of responsibility and maturity is kind of pretentious, and is preoccupied with issues of selfhood one could certainly associate with New Age philosophy. It's also a highly original and at times thrilling use of the documentary medium, and one of the most revealing films about the troubled nature of contemporary manhood I've ever seen.
Actually, Yu (director of the equally fascinating "In the Realms of the Unreal," about outsider artist Henry Darger) was originally commissioned to make a film about the Greek playwright Euripides, of all subjects. So her interviews with her four male subjects are intercut with excerpts from Euripidean drama, performed by wooden-rod puppets modeled after Greek masks, and chapter headings drawn from Euripides' texts. Whether this high-concept frame really works is open to debate, but it does create a sense that these four men -- a martial-arts expert, a former bank robber, an ex-"ex-gay" minister and a reformed left-wing terrorist -- take part in a struggle that long predates the 21st-century crisis of masculinity.
All of Yu's subjects are men whose lives have involved key moments of revelation and transformation, which could be described as central themes in Euripides. In some sense, each was at war with his true nature (or with fate, as the Greeks would say). Joe Loya grew up in an abusive Mexican-American family and became an especially sadistic bank robber, a path he now looks back on with remarkable clarity. As we see in if-you-don't-laugh-you'll-cry file footage, Mark Pierpont fought for years to repress his homosexual impulses, becoming a prominent figure in the evangelical movement's attempts to "cure" lesbians and gays. Hans-Joachim Klein rebelled against his father, a Nazi sympathizer, by becoming just as dogmatic in another direction, as one of Europe's most notorious left-wing revolutionaries of the 1970s. (To those who don't know much about the leftist-terror wave of that decade -- which is to say almost everyone -- Klein's story will seem especially strange and dramatic.)
In some respects the odd man out is Mark Salzman, Yu's husband (and a respected author Salzman in his own right), who perhaps is in the film to demonstrate that less dramatic lives contain these kinds of heroic transformations. Salzman never pistol-whipped a bank teller or hijacked an airplane, but in his account he spent years in the thrall of a cruel and small-minded martial-arts guru before leaving to strike his own path. Whether Yu can connect these four guys to Euripides in some meaningful way I'm not sure, but her film makes an oddly resonant and perhaps even liberating experience for men, and perhaps especially for women who are curious about them. (Opens Nov. 30 at the IFC Center in New York; Dec. 7 in Boston, San Francisco and Washington; and Dec. 14 in Los Angeles, with more cities to follow.)
back to top
by Ken Fox
Academy Award winning documentary filmmaker Jessica Wu originally planned on making a documentary about the classical tragedian Euripides. What she wound up with is an audacious and remarkably assured documentary that weaves together four seemingly unrelated portraits of four contemporary men whose very different lives follow the course of Euripidean drama.
Wu's subjects couldn't be any more different. Mark Pierpont is a former evangelical preacher who knew fairly early on that he was gay. Growing up in a devout Christian family in Wildwood, NJ, he feared the perdition the Church guaranteed homosexuals, and convinced himself that he'd been cured through prayer. After attending a missionary training school instead of college, Pierpont began spreading the Gospel around the world; he also began leafleting Seattle-area gay bars with the woman who would soon become his wife, promising the Sodomites within that they, too, could overcome their homosexuality through force of will and God's love. Mexican-American Joe Loya had a happy childhood until the death of his mother from cancer when Joe was 9, after which his grieving alcoholic father began mercilessly abusing him. Helpless in the face of his father's violence and unable to protect his younger brother from beatings that amounted to torture, Loya found another way of proving his strength as a man: He embarked on a career of petty crime and bank robberies that would eventually land in him a California prison. It wasn't the money Loya was after. He knew even while it was happening that the real rush came from his victims' fear and degradation. As a kid, Mark Salzman (a particularly engaging storyteller who also happens to be Wu's husband) was a slight, insecure, self-described human punching bag for school bullies, but when he first saw the TV show Kung Fu, Salzman knew he'd found his role model: Kwai Chang, played by David Carradine, a highly trained martial artist of quiet strength, courage and wisdom who reluctantly used his deadly fists to serve his high ideals. Determined to become as much like his new hero as possible, Salzman began taking Chinese boxing lessons from a local instructor, a full-blown sociopath who seemed to delight in violence, humiliation and cruelty, and who drove his students to perverse lengths to prove their commitment. Hans-Joachim Klein is perhaps the most well-known of Wu's raconteurs. The son of a German-Jewish mother who committed suicide in the Ravensbrueck concentration camp and a German police officer who considered Adolph Hitler to have been a "good man," Klein grew up respecting the police and fearing his father. After witnessing the brutal treatment meted out upon the student and worker demonstrators during the tumult of 1968, however, Klein underwent a political awakening and threw himself into radical left-wing politics. By 1972, he was deeply involved with the RAF and members of the Baader-Meinhof gang; in 1975, he joined notorious Venezuelan terrorist Carlos the Jackal in an ill-fated attempt to storm the OPEC headquarters in Vienna and take the oil ministers hostage. Three people were shot to death, and even though Klein was hailed as a hero by his colleagues, he, like the three other subjects of this remarkable film, had reached a turning point.
Wu imposes a structure on the diverse stories by organizing them into chapters whose headings are drawn from elements germane to classical drama: "Character," "Provocation," "Opportunity," "Certainty," "Threshold," "Doubt," "Reversal," etc. As in her acclaimed 2004 documentary IN THE REALMS OF THE UNREAL, which told the strange, lonely story of outsider artist Henry Darger, Wu makes ingenious use of animation to reveal deeper meanings. Utilizing the ingenious puppetry of Janie Geiser to enacting episodes from Euripides plays (the original ancient Greek text is read in voice over by Marina Sirtis and Chris Diamantopolous) and well as dramatizations of her subjects' life stories, Wu is able to demonstrate both the timelessness and the universality of stories which, on the surface, sound extreme and unique. All, however, are searching for transcendence, and an escape from the shame, pain and rage of their lives through extreme experience. And each will find their own way back to themselves after reaching the inevitable crisis and catharsis in ways that are surprising and deeply affecting.
back to top
New York Times
November 30, 2007
Men Behaving Extremely, With True Believers' Passion
By STEPHEN HOLDEN
The four men who relate their life stories in "Protagonist," Jessica Yu's enthralling documentary exploration of people with obsessive needs for control and self-mastery, are all disillusioned (and extremely articulate) true believers. When they were younger, they were certain they had found the Answer. One embraced terrorism, another crime, a third martial arts and the fourth missionary Christianity as ways of transcending painful, oppressive childhoods that left them with feelings of inadequacy and shame.
Hans-Joachim Klein was the child of a Jewish mother who committed suicide after being released from the Ravensburg concentration camp. Rebelling against his father, a brutal policeman and Nazi sympathizer, Mr. Klein embraced left-wing activism and became a terrorist and self-described weapons fetishist who got "high on rage" and set fire to the American cultural center in Frankfurt at least 10 times. In the mid-1970s he participated in the violent kidnapping of OPEC ministers and in the Entebbe hijacking. "I felt I was the ruler of life and death," he recalls.
Joe Loya endured increasingly savage beatings from his father, who blamed him for his mother's death from kidney disease. He remembers the adrenaline rush he felt when, at 16, he finally fought back and stabbed his father in the neck, twisting the knife and nearly killing him. As a young man who robbed more than 30 banks, he rejoiced in being the victimizer rather than the victim and savored the control he exerted over his own panic while committing his crimes. In his mind he was a Nietzschean Übermensch who lived above the rules of society.
As the smallest boy in his class growing up in suburban Connecticut, Mark Salzman was the "school punching bag." His life changed, he says, when he discovered the actor David Carradine practicing kung fu on television and became so enamored of Mr. Carradine's character, Caine, that he bought a bald wig to wear over his long hair. Enrolling in a punishing martial arts course, he experienced male bonding for the first time with his "kung fu brothers," one of whom was the school bully who had tormented him. Training himself to be impervious to physical discomfort, he would walk to school barefoot in the snow.
Mark Pierpont grew up in a strict religious household in New Jersey, where he was the black sheep of the family and a crybaby. When he became aware of his homosexuality, he embraced the church, attended missionary training school, preached all over the world, married and produced a son. He even wrote a tract, ³How I Came Out," whose title inverted the notion of coming out of the closet to mean leaving homosexuality behind. When his son was born, he says, "I felt satisfied, complete, whole."
Ms. Yu, who won the Oscar for best documentary short in 1997 for "Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien," states in the production notes for this film that her concept was to find people whose real lives mirrored the "tragedy of the extremist" in Euripides. A character embarks on a journey for valid reasons, only to find himself so embedded in the cause that he becomes the opposite of what he intended and is blind to that fact until "a single moment of dark clarity."
To this end, the four parallel narratives are interspersed with chapter headings like "Provocation," "Turning Point," "Fever" and "Catharsis." Scenes from the stories are re-enacted by puppets with wooden masks, manipulated by rods on a miniature replica of a classic Greek stage. (The visual design is elegant.) Quotations from Euripides spoken in ancient Greek connect these men with figures in Greek tragedy to suggest that nothing much has changed: now as then, character is destiny.
Mr. Klein's moment of revelation comes during the Entebbe raid, when he observes the Jews being separated from the other passengers on the hijacked plane and is disgusted by his colleagues' anti-Semitism. Mr. Loya's delusions of grandeur end after he is arrested and put in solitary confinement, where he nearly loses his mind. When Mr. Salzman (who is Ms. Yu's husband) sees his kung fu teacher choke a fellow student into unconsciousness, he begins questioning the role of gratuitous cruelty in courses promoted as bringing inner peace. Mr. Pierpont's suppressed desires bubble up just when he thought he had squelched them. In all four men, the loss of certainty has far-reaching consequences.
"Protagonist" leaves one question unanswered: Why are its subjects all male? Of the 200 individuals considered during her eight-month search for candidates, Ms. Yu writes in the production notes, only five or six were female: "Men, it appeared, were far more likely to experience the particular breed of obsessive pursuit ‹ and crashing revelation ‹ that we were looking for." No explanation is offered.
"Protagonist" is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian) for language and some violent images.
back to top
BY JOHN ANDERSON
Special to Newsday
November 30, 2007
It's just as important in documentary as it is in fiction filmmaking to tell a good story, and in the absorbing "Protagonist" there are four - all told in first-person, and each relating to the teller's struggle with fanatic obsession, dysfunction, doubt and redemption.
Hans Joachim Klein, a child of Nazi Germany, became a post-Baader-Meinhoff terrorist, kidnapping OPEC ministers and hijacking the Entebbe. Mark Pierpont, a "reformed gay" Christian, adopted the guise of anti-gay televangelist. Mark Salzman was a martial-arts fanatic, Joe Loya a bank robber. All four are united by what had been a desire to find themselves through something that would come to imprison them. That they ultimately escape their self-made prisons is cathartic, and writer-director Jessica Yu puts them in a transcendent historical-spiritual context through her use of marionettes, employed in scenes from Euripedes, the 5th century BC Greek playwright and pioneer of narrative itself.
Yu, whose last feature doc was the magical Henry Darger bio "In the Realms of the Unreal," has again used fact to create a work that's fantastic, but unifyingly human.
PROTAGONIST (R). 1:30 (language). At the IFC Center, Manhattan.
back to top
November 30, 2007
BY By Lisa Schwarzbaum
November 30, 2007
A former German terrorist once in cahoots with Carlos the Jackal, a gay Christian evangelical who, during his avowedly ''ex-gay'' period, preaches that Jesus has cured his ''homosexual problem,'' a bank robber, and a martial-arts devotee don't walk into a bar in Protagonist. They do, however, form the four male pillars of Jessica Yu's intricate, novel, and altogether fascinating art-piece documentary. The filmmaker incorporates ancient components of drama ‹ including the universal appeal of puppetry ‹ to explore the shaping of character in the crucible of fanaticism. And she relates her subjects' odysseys to principles of Greek tragedy, pausing to explain such concepts as ''provocation'' and ''catharsis.'' (Those puppets? They form a Greek chorus.)
If all this sounds awfully classroom-bound, it isn't ‹ far from it. Each man's story as he tells it is riveting, truly stranger than fiction, and awesome, too, in the way of unfathomable humans. And Yu (who made In the Realms of the Unreal, about ''outsider'' artist Henry Darger) fits her inventive artistic choices to a rigorous, well-thought-out thesis about the tragedy of the extremist ‹ and what makes a man a man. B+
back to top
November 30, 2007
by Elizabeth Bachner
"I'm very wary of people who are certain," says Joe Loya, one of four tragic heroes in Jessica Wu's documentary Protagonist. Wu intersperses interviews of four men a former German militant, an "ex-homosexual" missionary who finally comes out, a novelist who became involved in extreme king fu as a teen, and a bank robber-turned-journalist with scenes from Euripides enacted with puppets.
The puppets and the homage to classical tragedy might come off as pretentious or precious in the hands of a lesser filmmaker, but Yu manages to make each scene riveting and arresting. Protagonist has a great many similarities to Errol Morris's Fast, Cheap & Out of Control both feature men struggling to become the masters of their own lives and reckoning with the role of God. In Morris's film, the men in question are eccentric geniuses, resolutely creating their own worlds. In Protagonist, the four have lives that, according to Wu, mirror "the dramatic arc of a certain Euripidean tragedy the tragedy of the extremist." Unlike the extremists in Electra or The Bacchae, though, these real-life protagonists have happy endings. They question themselves, they transform, they move from the fever of fanaticism through catharsis to doubt and reflection.
The dangers of excess certainty and the tragedy inherent in extremism link the men's stories. Mark Piermont, raised in a strict Christian family in New Jersey, becomes a missionary to save himself and others from the sin of homosexuality. After Mexican-American Joe Loya loses his mother at age seven, his father becomes brutally violent. At 16, he stabs his father while protecting his smaller brother, and feels high at the sense of power it gives him. He reenacts that feeling robbing banks. Mark Salzman, the smallest kid in his class (and Yu's husband), responds to his passive parents and bullying schoolmates by committing himself to a life of martial arts with one extremely unorthodox instructor.
Hans-Joachim Klein's astonishing story begins with a bleak German childhood. His mother, a Holocaust survivor, killed herself, and his policeman father maintained that "Hitler was a great man." In the 1970s, Klein becomes radicalized and a comrade in the terrorist group Revolutionary Cells. (Klein also featured prominently in Barbet Schroeder's recent documentary Terror's Advocate.)
Each man has a single, pivotal moment of sudden realization that everything he has believed is undeniably, horrifically wrong. Like Agave in The Bacchae, who comes out of her fevered frenzy to understand that she is carrying her own son's bloody, severed head on a stake, these men move from delusion to clarity. And each is, in his own way, a sympathetic and charismatic character. There's an electric quality to Wu's presentation of their stories that illuminates how four very different lives, on a big or small scale, contain grand and epic elements, following the outline of classic drama.
back to top
January 26, 2007
by James Rocchi
One of the most visually and artistically exciting documentaries I've seen at this year's Sundance Film Festival -- or outside of Sundance in the past few years, frankly -- Protagonist is hard to define and easy to enjoy, seemingly scatter-shot but possessed by pure focus, full of invention and newness, but also firmly committed to sure-handed storytelling and classic tradition. Director Jessica Yu (In the Realms of the Unreal) was asked to create a documentary about the Greek dramatist Euripides; what she wound up doing was creating a documentary about the real-life journeys of four men that illustrate the themes of Euripides' ancient ideas about drama while speaking to the conflicts and challenges of our modern age. Protagonist is, at heart, a film about how story itself has a kind of DNA -- and how the ideas of storytelling replicate themselves, in that each of these subjects hears stories that help create who they are, and their stories reflect and reproduce those ideas in the stories they themselves tell.
A young man becomes obsessed with the TV show Kung Fu, which leads to his becoming a martial artist; later, Mark Saltzman realizes his pursuit of a myth has real-life consequences. Another boy is told he's powerless, weak, worthy of abuse; Joe Loya's desire to re-write that story leads him to embrace a life of crime as a bank robber. After a childhood of repression, a German youth becomes a committed social revolutionary; Hans-Joachim Klein later realizes he's become a lethal pawn for forces that want to exploit his principles. Finally, a boy in a fiercely Christian home tries to ignore his homosexual desires by proselytizing against the gay community as a man; eventually, Mark Pierpont has to try to reconcile his learned beliefs with his essential nature.
Yu's also painting a portrait of extreme ideas -- from the personal (Saltzman's martial arts mentor is a true jerk) to the political (Klein winds up as part of an armed group who kidnaps a group of OPEC ministers). And, just like in the stories of Euripides, certainty can lead to ruin. Yu uses puppetry to re-enact scenes from Euripides's plays -- and the lives of her subjects as well -- and the effect is striking and haunting. There's also animation in the film, but as immediately fascinating as those visual sequences are, there are subtler touches as well. We're shown Bible passages, bubblegum cards, old TV shows, flip-book animation, newsreel footage, home movies and doodles -- and realize that Yu's exploring all the ways we're surrounded by story, and all the ways we add to that invisible ocean of narrative we swim in, whether through personal remembrance or through public acts.
You could imagine Protagonist being navel-gazing and off-puttingly technical -- designed for an audience in horn-rimmed glasses and elbow-patch blazers -- but it's to Yu's credit that the film always feels universal and fresh and accessible, even as the subjects share their most personal stories or we're shown the moments and visions of ancient drama. Once upon a time, someone told each of us "Once upon a time ..."; Protagonist makes it clear through rich images and powerful personal sagas how every story we've heard has shaped the stories we are, and how the stories we tell live on in unexpected ways beyond their first telling.
back to top
Los Angeles Times
January 28, 2007
By Kenneth Turan
Times Staff Writer
January 28, 2007
The focus was Euripedes, so she thought, 'Puppets!'
Jessica Yu threw her creative energies into a doc that morphed into a complex style sampler.
Park City, Utah - WHEN you're drawn to unusual subject matter, says documentary director Jessica Yu, to stories that lack obvious and abundant visual material, "those limitations make you order off the menu." In the case of "Protagonist," Yu's wonderfully accomplished, unexpected and challenging new work, those limitations sent her not just off the menu but to a different restaurant entirely.
"I definitely had the sense that this was risky. Puppets speaking ancient Greek ‹ is this going to make any sense at all?" says Yu of her new film, which debuted at Sundance last Sunday. "But if someone presents you with the opportunity, why not explore? Usually you're dealing with a lot of limitations and only a certain amount of freedom. Here, the freedom was enormous; I feel totally spoiled."
On one level, "Protagonist" intercuts the first-person narratives of four men who seem to have nothing in common except their charisma: a former German terrorist, a student of martial arts, a "formerly gay" evangelist and a serial bank robber. But this is only the beginning.
For Yu, who looks on editing as "weaving straw into gold," intercuts these stories not only with each other but with several different kinds of material. She has wooden rod puppets constructed by Janie Geiser doing brief scenes from the plays of Euripides, recited in ancient Greek. She has the same puppets performing scenes from the lives of these four men. And she has a dozen or so 15-second animated moments that go with single thematic words like "provocation," "certainty" and "doubt" that function as "little bits of breathing room."
To understand where this highly unusual structure comes from and why it is so successful, it's necessary to go back to the original idea for the film. In 2003, Yu (winner of the 1997 short documentary Oscar for "Breathing Lessons") was asked by Greg Carr and Noble Smith of the Carr Foundation to make a documentary about the Greek playwright Euripides. "This was not an obvious documentary subject, like the new homeless shelter downtown, and when I heard it I did laugh out loud," Yu remembers. "No image came to my mind; it was a complete blank slate. Usually with documentaries, you have to have the concept hammered out before you look for funding. Here, the attention was on the process of discovery; it was 'see what you make of it.' "
Yu spent a summer reading Euripides' surviving 19 plays and discovering that "there was a certain complexity to his human characters; people talked about him being the first psychologist. While the other Greeks did morality plays, he wrote people as they are."
The filmmaker found herself most drawn to those characters (especially those in Euripides' "Bacchae") who "start out with a goal but get so completely obsessed with the journey, they end up [with] the opposite of what they intended. How does somebody go from here to there?"
The Carr Foundation was happy with this approach, and Yu's first task was to look for people whose stories mirrored each other, people whose lives not only had that arc but also "had that dramatic moment, that dark epiphany when it all became clear, like that moment in the Talking Heads song that talks about 'This is not my beautiful house.' That's much harder to find in real life."
Finding these folks, "individuals who seemed to have little in common but, if you made a graph, had essentially lived the same lives," turned out to be "a complete needle-in-a-haystack search" that went on for months and involved some 200 candidates. Oddly, almost all of them were men, not because women aren't obsessive but because women tend to find out things are going wrong gradually, not in one dark moment, according to Yu. One of the men chosen was found through Google searches "involving key words typed in like 'haiku,' " and one turned out to be Yu's husband, the writer and martial artist Mark Salzman.
Because Euripides had been the starting point of all this, Yu next searched for "some visual elements that tied together the stories with the Greek element." Though she shies away from using "the P-word" ("I think of them more as sculptures"), Yu went with puppets because they reminded her of the way actors in ancient Greece used masks when they appeared before an audience.
She started with the puppets doing moments from "Bacchae," lines that "were supposed to wash over you and reinforce the theme." She also decided to keep the dialogue in subtitled, difficult-to-pronounce ancient Greek. On the day of recording, with "everybody freaking out," Yu ended up with the mother of one of the actors, who happened to be an expert in the language, "on the phone for four straight hours, walking them through it." To tie everything even closer together, she decided that having the puppets act out scenes from everyone's dramas would enhance the "combined narrative momentum" she was after.
Though it all worked out in the end, Yu is well aware that the structure of "Protagonist" practices "tough love with the audience."
"There's a built-in lag period," Yu says. "It's disorienting, and there's not a lot of hand-holding. You have to have faith in the story, and you have to stick with it until the point where you get it." And they do.
"It's really fun," Jessica Yu says, "to see what people talk about when 'Protagonist' is over. They didn't know where this film would end up."
January 24th, 2007 Variety
Protagonist (Documentary) A Diorama Films production in association with the Carr Foundation. (International sales: Submarine Entertainment, New York.) Produced by Jessica Yu, Elise Pearlstein, Susan West. Executive producers, Greg Carr, Noble Smith. Directed, written, edited by Jessica Yu.
By JOHN ANDERSON
The dangers of extremism and the virtues of uncertainty are the keys to the remarkable "Protagonist," docu helmer Jessica Yu's exploration of four men's journey through dysfunction, obsession and redemption. The film's sheer boldness -- Yu uses puppets, and the work of 5th Century B.C. Greek dramatist Euripides to illustrate the timelessness of her subjects' dilemmas -- should make it a must-see among doc fans and artfilm cinephiles.In some very specific ways, "Protagonist" resembles Errol Morris' "Fast, Cheap and Out of Control," in the initial elusiveness of intent and; the disparity of its characters. What can Hans Joachim Klein, Mark Pierpont, Mark Salzman and Joe Loya -- a German terrorist, a "reformed" gay Christian, a martial-arts enthusiast and a bank robber -- possibly have in common? What develops -- over perhaps too prolonged an introduction to their personalities and stories -- is the issue of control: All were abused in some way as children and chose to cope through extreme and ultimately destructive behavior -- behavior they truly believed would save them. Klein was a child of Nazi Germany, and became part of the post-Baader-Meinhoff revolutionary movement that was involved with the kidnapping of OPEC ministers and the Entebbe hijacking. Pierpont, resisting his gay nature, became an anti-gay televangelist. Salzman, brutally bullied at school, was inspired by David Carradine and TV's "Kung Fu" to pursue serenity through martial arts but discovered his obsession was overtaking his life. Loya, whose father was a sadistic bully, found solace through robbing banks. The parallels between Greek tragedy and the subjects' own harrowing histories eventually becomes clear, with chapter headings drawn from Euripides -- from "Character" to "Catharsis" to "Reflection" -- complete with Hellenic art motifs. The effect is to place four very up-to-date people in the frame of history, and portray the human condition as timeless. Although most of Yu's movie consists of the subjects reviewing their own lives -- and how and why their dedication to their chosen causes eventually crumbled -- she has chosen four very articulate people who never stumble over their words and have a total grip on the meaning of their lives. Their recollections never feel rehearsed, and the briskness of their delivery keeps the film from bogging down. Add to this the elegant production values and the HD work of Russell Harper and Karl Hahn, and "Protagonist" is an irresistible and novel trip into innovative storytelling and satisfying resolutions. Camera (color, HD cam), Russell Harper, Karl Hahn; music, Jeff Beal; sound (Dolby), Matthew Iadarola; supervising sound editor, Rob Getty; puppet designer, Janie Geiser; casting, Linda Montagne. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 22, 2007. Running time: 90 MIN.
With Hans Joachim-Klein, Mark Pierpont, Joe Loya, Mark Salzman.
February 2, 2007
Park City Dispatch. 10.
Brian Darr on Protagonist
Everyone should have a documentary film made about them. That's the advice that Iron and Silk author Mark Salzman shared with the audience at the Q&A following Jessica Yu's Protagonist, probably the most structurally ambitious of the 13 documentary features I saw at Sundance this January. Posed with the problem of making a documentary with the great tragedician Euripides, Yu put out a call for people ready to tell their stories of a cathartic awakening that they had been traveling for too long down the wrong path. She found four men, each with a vastly different set of specific life experiences, but tied together by their gifts of eloquence and self-understanding. Despite the use of a set of haunting puppets designed by Janie Geiser as a unifying device, it's difficult to anticipate where the stories of an "ex-gay" minister, a far-left radical terrorist, a bank robber and a martial arts enthusiast (Salzman) are going to go or how they will cohere into a film greater than the sum of its shots. Which makes Yu's achievement all the more satisfying when a thesis emerges: that each of us, no matter how beset by the gods or by our fate, is the protagonist of our own life story.
January 23, 2007
By: Jameson Kowalczyk
What do an 'ex-gay' evangelist, a martial arts student, a former German terrorist, and a one-time career bank robber all have in common? This is the question filmmaker Jessica Yu both poses and answers in her new feature length documentary Protagonist, competing in the Independent Film Documentary competition at Sundance.
The film is a combination of the typical talking-head style interviews and archival material, but in an extremely original (and strangely, engagingly cinematic) twist, Yu stages all the reenactments with wooden rod puppets in the style of Ancient Greek tragedy stage performances. The puppets faces and heads are modeled after large wooden masks actors would wear on stage. Yu has stated she deliberately chose rod puppets (puppets operated from rods below the stage) and not marionettes because of their superior level of control and also "to avoid the symbolic implications projected by puppets controlled by strings from above." In addition to reenactments, the puppets are used in short scenes from 5th Century B.C. playwright Euripides' body of work (this film actually evolved from an proposition to make a documentary about Euripides) that act as prefaces to the film's five acts.
The film begins with what leads these men into the extreme immersion into their lifestyles - their childhoods. Three out of the four men - Hans-Joachim Klein (the German terrorist), Joe Loya (bank robber), and Mark Salzman (martial artist) - suffer through physical and mental abuse growing up. Klein and Loya's are at the hands of their fathers, and Salzman's is at the hands of schoolyard bullies. Mark Pierpont, the 'ex-gay' evangelist, does not face persecution for his homosexuality, but feels intense guilt as he believes sexual attraction to men is a Hell-worthy sin in the eyes of God. All four seek to empower themselves, and begin separate odysseys that, though very different in plot, overlap thematically.
Of the four stories contained within the film, my two personal favorites are Klein and Salzman. Klein's rise from political activist to internationally wanted terrorist, to political exile supported by money raised by Jean-Paul Sartre is one of those stranger-than-fiction historical document. And Salzman's recounting of his insane Kung Fu instructor are priceless - the guy would set his students loose in a cemetery at night and hunt them down then beat the hell out of them. Loya's and Piermont's are equally strong. Loya's honesty and understanding of himself, and his ability to reform, provide the film's most touching moments. And Piermont is great to listen to - I've never heard anyone so intensely religious who has managed to keep such an open mind; he's someone with true understanding of what faith is about.
Best documentary I've seen at Sundance so far.
back to top