Protagonist

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....read more

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Reviewed by Ken Fox
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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.

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  • Released: 2007
  • Rating: R
  • Review: 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 unrelat… (more)

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