Tuesday, June 01, 2010

"Protagonist" (Documentary) (2007) - Movie Review

Unconditional love for films comes when there is an impeccable evidence that it has spoken to you clearly and personally. Jessica Yu’s documentary “Protagonist” not only does that but humbles beyond you can accept. This is one of the best documentary I have seen and this is a film you deserve to watch for the sake of yourself. This is unbelievable film making with a study of humans through four characters and running parallel to the Euripidean dramatic structures. If you are wondering what it is, then do not worry because I had no clue about it either when I was watching the film. The only thing you need to know is to be open to the puppet show they put in which holds hands with the interviews and brings in a philosophical poetry to this film.

Jessica Yu chooses four men. Hans-Joachim Klein, Mark Salzman, Joe Loya and Mark Pierpont. Four men will tell their life stories and four men will put it in with great honesty, humility and audacity. These stories are moving, enlightening, comedic, inspiring and will reflect our own metamorphosis. Each of them have a rough past and the stages are given in the dramatic structures which brings smiles, goose pumps and sheer joy of getting everything right in this spectacular movie.

Hans-Joamchim Klein grew up seeing his Nazi father’s hate and a mother sent to a concentration camp as she was a Jew only to commit suicide. He has seen the horrific nature humanity can be on blindly abiding and idolizing the atrocious events on beliefs. He rebels and becomes a flag bearer for the movement of speaking up. He takes it up too far and before the time of realization, too much has happened and he can live only in regret and slow redemption. This is his story.

There is Mark Salzman growing up as physically small and fragile kid. Picked on by bullies, he needs a form of hope and self confidence. He finds it in martial art, the feel to be super human and be able to have that magical presence and respect. He forms a religion of his own through this and thrives to be the Zen he read about. He joins a martial arts school where the master is close to a mad man but is the one he aspires to be. He thoroughly enjoys it as he befriends the biggest bully in this process. But there is a corner to be turned and when he does that, everything changes. This is his story. I learned that Mark is the spouse of Jessica Yu which makes it an even bolder approach to her film and reflects on the great risk Mark took.

Joe Loya had a perfect life of joy till the age of seven. His mother died due to cancer after which his father loses his control. He becomes abusive towards his kids and Loya could not help himself or his kid brother. Growing up believing in the Christian lifestyle, these change him into a violent raging youth. Soon the lid is off and he becomes full fledged bank robber getting off on the high through rage. That becomes his life and his way of control. This is his story.

Mark Pierpont grew up as the odd man in his family. Being extremely sensitive, his friends and family saw him as this weird kid not belonging anywhere. His only relation became God and for that he sacrifices his identity. Or to be precise, erases and castrates his identity of being gay. Every thought about male attraction became his greatest failure and the only way to deal with it is to become the minister propagating Jesus, love and no to homosexuality. Soon he is the face for successful conversion from gay to being straight. Yet there is only so much one can hide from themselves This is his story.

These four men will navigate us through their troubles through their story. Their waking moments and the blindness, their love and the idea of love, their certainty and their loss of control are layered with a confident precision. While their life has traumatic experiences which many of us are fortunate to not go through, their lessons in identifying themselves cannot be more identical than ours. We are them and that is where we gel into their stories and become protagonist ourselves.

“Protagonist” uses the Greek play into these men’s interviews. That becomes a commentary of these stories. The beautiful structure in which Yu takes us through makes this a documentary of more emotional appeal than any other I have imagined. Seeing this film, I was reminded of Michael Apted’s Up documentaries. Apted’s film is about his life project of tracking a group of people in UK right from the age of 7 and revisiting their lives every seven years. The last film was “49 Up” and in that and every other previous films, we are moved and delighted by their growth towards life. There is reflection of it which baffles our mind of how we will be or we were like them continuously changing and learning things far and beyond. This film gets those in a single take.

Being moved in a documentary is more real than a fiction film. Hence in the fear of sounding harsh and mean I would say evoking sympathy to their characters in documentary is not a challenge because being human is to sympathize and empathize. I have greater appreciation for fiction film to bring that out as it needs work and effort. The reason is that the objective of both these mediums are vastly different. In “Protagonist”, Jessica Yu uses her documentary as an art project and into a human study and finally a self revelation. It works as a poetry, a story teller and life with such a love for its subject.

These four people are audacious in telling their story with passion and truth. Their pain and suffering to grow up in this world and to be accepted and exist becomes a tool to analyze our childhood. They spring to the ring with the topic of who we are and how we shape ourselves into this adult. The ripe and moldable age of youth beckons and demands a strong and firm answer. Once found, it becomes the matter of pride, ego and their purpose to live for. Soon the confrontation happens on the realities of those philosophies and values. Some keep on going with the arrogance and some learn the humility. These four men does the latter. This is a film which along with many other qualities slaps you with gentleness and humbles you, to yourself.

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