When she was commissioned to make a documentary about Euripedes (a tall order, indeed), filmmaker Jessica Yu instead chose to see if she could apply the classical Greek playwright’s dramatic structuring principles to present-day living. Rather than rehash what made the tragedian’s works great or set them apart from those of Aeschylus or Sophocles, or probe his dramatic intentions through a flat biography format or literal stagings of his plays, Yu decided to make Euripedes somewhat tangential, a unifying force rather than the center of attention. She then spent a long time trying to find four individuals who would reveal for the camera, in soul-bearing conversations, the social conditions and moral decisions that brought them to where they are today–which is, to say, emerged from cycles of destructive and extreme behavior. To focus on truly ruptured lives not only gives Yu the appropriate dramatic hooks and embellishments she needs but also helps her fit her subjects’ rites of passage and emotional turmoils into elegantly appointed narrative arcs right out of the Greek tragic playbook.
It’s revealing, both for Yu and in terms of human nature, that she trains her camera exclusively on men; with the only female presence in the film hidden behind the camera, Protagonist often seems like a bemused inquiry into maleness. Click here to read the rest of Michael Koresky’s review of Protagonist.