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Hot Docs Review: Protagonist

Protagonist is Jessica Yu's ambitious follow-up to her fantastic In the Realms of the Unreal. By employing the "talking heads" style made famous by Errol Morris, Protagonist delves into the past lives of four different men: a German terrorist, a reformed gay Christian, a martial-artist and a bank robber. Each story is loaded with themes of guilt, rage, abuse and violence -- paralleling the narrative arc of a Euripidian tragedy, which Yu uses literally as the connective tissue.

The themes are, of course, as classical and timeless (yet for the jaded -- too predictable) as the ancient Greek tragedian's plays themselves. Yet, herein lies my predicament: why make a documentary that simply draws out the narrative when a fictional film would suffice? Yes, I know the actual men in the film are compelling to watch, and each one has a defining characteristic that is always engaging (even infectious); however, would not the language of narrative cinema better enhance the content and our overall experience?

It's hard to fault Yu on her technical abilities, since the film is so expertly structured; using puppetry, animation and inter-titles to convey her points. Nonetheless, a documentary that documents a great play is frustrating in that "show me, don't tell me" sort of way.

I don't have an inherent hatred towards the "talking head" style (The Thin Blue Line is a personal favourite of mine), but what I expect from it is to suggest the greater human complexities that cannot be shown -- puppets are a good start, but not enough.

(Photo: Carr Foundation and Jessica Yu)


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