The Protagonist, a 2007 documentary by Jessica Yu was both interesting, artsy and strange. The story basically consists of four men that aren’t particularly similar: a thief (Joe Loya), an “ex-gay” evangelist (Mark Pierpont), a German terrorist (Hans-Joachim Klein, who’s scenes are all subtitled), and a martial arts student with a sadistic trainer (Mark Salzman who is actually Director Jessica Yu’s spouse), all interspersed by puppets that occasionally play out the scenes the men describe or scenes from Greek playwright Euripides works. Yes, you did read that right. Puppets.
All the above sounds like it should be a mess, but somehow actually works its way into a fairly cohesive piece about the lives of these men and how they all went to different kinds of extremism in order to maintain control over their own personal conflicts. Interestingly enough, each manages to completely change their lives in a massive overcompensation to try to overcome their own personal childhood demons, often only to find that they had become the monster that they reviled.
You would think that there would be no need to add puppets to this, not to mention puppets playing out occasional scenes of Greek tragedy, but it ended up both complementing and adding another layer to the film in a way that worked. The violent scenes using puppets with red streamers to indicate blood was incredibly effective, and allowed a way of showing the action, giving the audience a break from the talking heads, and maintaining some distance from the violence described while keeping the emotional levels high.
Although I did flip-flop a bit in the beginning of the film, I think that The Protagonist did a great job of delving into the stories it told, and by stringing them together like the puppets themselves, it emphasizes how human conflict can be both individual and strikingly similar at the same time.
And for all those interested, here’s the trailer: