Documentary filmmaking has always been about creating a compelling story structure from countless hours of unorganized footage. Jessica Yu’s strange and fascinating documentary “Protagonist” goes a step further by directly applying the traditional structure of a dramatic hero’s journey to those of her real-life characters.
Director Yu offers no introductory overview of who the four men—all from different backgrounds—are, what they will become or why they were selected as subjects. She simply introduces the characters with interview footage of them discussing their childhood. The only hints at the film’s objectives are play excerpts, acted with wooden puppets on classic Greek stages, and one-word title cards indicating the different traditional stages of character development (“Turning Point,” “Doubt,” “Catharsis”) that the parts of the story fit into.
The stories all involve the quest for identity, and include an abused child who becomes a bank robber, the student of a high-strung and controversial martial arts instructor, a devout Christian who represses his homosexuality and a German activist who, in an attempt to bring about political change, falls in with a terrorist organization. Some of the men hide their true selves, others get lost when they think that they’re on the path of discovery.
Yu captures her subjects’ intensity with some of the best interviewing this side of Errol Morris. When Mark Salzman discusses his discovery of and passion for Kung Fu, he has the same excitement that he must have had as a scrawny teenager in search of a philosophy and purpose. She also uses the puppets to reenact some of the scenes from the different lives. This proves especially chilling in the passages in which Joe Loya discusses his abusive father.
Yu structures the stories in a manner that is not instantly understandable, but inspires attention with its profound puzzle. The stories are both a commentary on each other and engrossing in their own right (although a couple become slightly repetitive towards the end in order to fill the various stages of the conclusion). The film becomes at once an argument for the accuracy of fictional conventions and for the power of true, personal experiences.