Monday, August 20, 2007


The Film Festival's enthusiasm for Protagonist doesn't seem to translate into much confidence in its ticket-selling ability. The programme bills it as "The most emotionally expansive, formally ambitious documentary of the year" - which may well be true. For some reason, the programme doesn't mention that the director, Jessica Yu, won an Oscar in 1996 for her documentary short Breathing Lessons. Perhaps the assumption is that we Film Festival-goers either regard the Oscars as beneath us. Or maybe they think we're so well-informed that we already know who won Best Documentary Short eleven years ago? So the film is showing in Filmhouse 3, which is one of the smallest cinemas in Edinburgh. It's really more of a screening room.

Protagonist tells the life stories of four completely unrelated men, which - and please, please don't tune out here - are presented in the structure of Euripidean tragedy. Euripedes was regarded as ahead of his time back in the fifth century BC because he wrote about people as they were, rather than people as they ought to be. The common theme with these four men is that they are all, in their own way, former extremists who have reacted to an initial problem by pursuing a seemingly logical solution with absolute commitment, only to realise that they've gone too far and to perform a complete U-turn.

Their stories are entirely independent of one another, and range from the relatively minor (martial arts enthusiast Mark Salzman) through to the alarmingly dangerous (terrorist Hans-Joachim Klein). Yu tells their stories through a mixture of interview, archive footage and reconstruction - with puppets. Animated captions appear from time to time to flag up when we're moving on to the next phase of Euripides' structure.

Each of the four stories is interesting in itself. But by intercutting them around the same structure, Yu brings out the parallels and turns them into a discussion of universal themes of human nature. This is not a film about Euripedes; it's a film that uses Euripedes to illustrate the fact that not only does this structure hold good for the four guys on film, but it also held good two and a half millennia ago.

This is a compelling piece of work, and one to see if you get the chance. If you live in Edinburgh, that would be at 8.30pm tonight, when the second showing is on - although since it's in Filmhouse 3 again, you might be lucky to get tickets. If you're in America, it's opening in New York on September 26, and rolling out from there.