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Protagonist (2007)

Jessica Yu's documentary explores the relationship between human life and Euripidean dramatic structure by weaving together the stories of four men: German terrorist, a bank robber, an "ex-gay" evangelist, and a martial arts student.

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Hans-Joachim Klein ...
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Jessica Yu's documentary explores the relationship between human life and Euripidean dramatic structure by weaving together the stories of four men: German terrorist, a bank robber, an "ex-gay" evangelist, and a martial arts student.

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Rated R for language
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January 2007 (USA)  »

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$800,000 (estimated)
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perceptive study of the human psyche
4 January 2010 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

"The child is father to the man" is the underlying principle behind "Protagonist," an intriguing, psychologically profound documentary that explores what it means to be a "man" in the modern world. The movie focuses on four very different individuals who generously share the stories of their lives with us. As a diminutive child, Mark Salzman was so often the target of bullying and harassment that he trained himself to become a master in the martial arts. Mark Pierpont is a gay man who has spent much of his life trying to reconcile his strict religious beliefs with his homosexuality. Joe Loya was the victim of massive physical abuse at the hands of his father and turned to a life of crime as a result. And Hans-Joaquim Klein is an older German man, the son of an authoritarian police officer and a mother who spent time in a concentration camp, who, in response to the inhumanity and social injustice he saw in the world around him, became a well-known violent revolutionary during the radical heyday of the 1960s and '70s.

More than anything else, the movie shows how we are all ultimately the product of our environments and upbringings - even if all that means is that we spend our whole lives actively, and often futilely, fighting against that fact. Indeed, much as we may not like to admit it, our pasts define who we are as individuals and how we deal with the world around us. What unites these four men is their obsessive need to overcome what they like least about themselves - be it their physical or emotional weakness, their sexuality, their perceived wickedness - and to do so through a compulsive marshaling of the will and an intense application to a single activity (in their cases, martial arts, bank robbery, antigay proselytizing and violent extremism). Eventually, it is these activities that allow the men to feel that they have achieved at least some measure of "control" over their lives (however dubious that may be). In addition, this new-found acceptance from the people around them finally gives the men that sense of self-worth they were never able to achieve as children. Unfortunately, however, they soon learn that sublimation can take us only so far before our true natures begin to assert themselves or before we come to realize that the direction our life is headed in is clearly not the right one. And that, we come to realize, is what is meant by "maturity," a maturity reflected in the thoughtful and honest self-appraisal each of these men undergoes throughout the course of the film. And, by the end, all four have achieved a kind of peace-through-acceptance, a redemption and regeneration based on knowing who they are and finally coming to terms with the past that has clearly molded - but not defeated - them.

Director Jessica Yu has provided a generous helping of photos and film clips from the men's pasts to flesh out the interviews. And, in the film's most unusual artistic touch, she utilizes puppets to dramatize some of the events in the men's lives and to serve as a literal Greek-chorus providing running commentary on the subject.

Unique in form and universal in content, "Protagonist" is an amazingly insightful and thought-provoking look into the complex entity that is the human psyche.


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