As a filmmaker, Oscar winner Jessica Yu is smart, adventurous, and utterly fearless. You'd have to be to make a talking-head documentary inspired by the 5th century B.C. playwright Euripides (an idea proposed by the Carr Foundation) and then decide to outfit key scenes with wooden rod puppets speaking ancient Greek. But her new film, Protagonist, which was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival and gets a theatrical release November 30 from IFC Films, is not high-concept marionette theater, it's a fascinating investigation of what drives passionate people to acts of radical self-negation—and of the dangerous certainty that fuels fanatical belief.Narrated by a bank robber, a Baader-Meinhof terrorist, a martial-arts zealot, and an evangelical missionary "cured" of his homosexuality, the film is structured like a modern Attic tragedy, with puppets created by Janie Geiser acting out dialogue from The Bacchae as these four men recount their agonized and ultimately cathartic life experiences. What's surprising in the candid, cross-cut interviews is how similar the dramatic arc of their stories are, and how often their accounts overlap and resonate in unexpected ways. New Jersey native Mark Pierpont, for instance, recounts his struggle to reconcile his queer sexuality with an all-loving but authoritarian Christian God, while political idealist Hans-Joachim Klein describes how his seditious activities in the'70s grew largely out of disdain for his own almighty father, a German police officer sympathetic to Nazi ideology.In one sense, Protagonist is a film about extremes, and about how far one can go in singleminded pursuit of a goal or a fixed idea before disaster forces an attitude of clarity. One of the four participants is Yu's own husband, Iron & Silk author Mark Salzman, who as a much-bullied Connecticut youth became wildly obsessed with the art of self-defense after glimpsing the TV show Kung Fu. And then there's Joe Loya, a victim of horrific abuse who grew up to become a Nietzsche-quoting stickup artist and all-around badass. (Now he's a journalist for Pacific News Service.) Yu interleaves these tales of to-the-brink-and-back obsession to ingenious effect, pairing her subjects' soul-baring with chapter headings like "Threshold" and "Resolution," while teasing out the connection between trauma and terror, male identity and the ascetic mastery of the body.Of course, Yu is no stranger to the varied ways that torment and anguish drive creative enterprise and self-reflection. In 1997, she won an Academy Award for Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien, her intimate portrait of the polio-stricken Berkeley poet who was confined to an iron lung. Two years later, she made the HBO documentary The Living Museum, about an arts community based at a psychiatric hospital in Queens. And in 2004 came In the Realms of the Unreal, a lyrical postmortem on self-taught artist Henry Darger, a reclusive Chicago janitor whose enormous cut-out-doll tableaux and mythic urtexts have become iconic examples of outsider art. Filmmaker spoke with Yu about Greek tragedy, human nature, and the creative challenges she faced making Protagonist.
Yu is the Academy Award-winning director of the short Breathing Lessons as well as the director of In the Realms of the Unreal and The Living Museum, and is a member of the new generation of doc-makers expanding the genre with animation, puppets and non-linear storytelling. I was curious to find out how Yu responded to the question posed by her funders: "Would you like to direct a documentary about Euripides?" I also took this opportunity to ask Yu, "When does a documentary cease to be a documentary?"