Jessica Yu’s mind works in unconventional ways, hence her documentary, PROTAGONIST, which starts with the works of Euripides and ends up considering human nature in all its dazzling complexity. When I talked with her on November 29, 2007, the conversation took on why puppets are so potent, tracking down an ex-terrorist, and the gender differences in dealing with a crisis.
When Yu was offered financing to make a documentary about the ancient Greek playwright Euripides, she pondered the limitations of creating a biography about someone when the source material about his day-to-day life was thin at best. Instead, she came up with the radical idea to make a film about why his work still resonates after more than two millennia. The result is PROTAGONIST, an eerie look at the concordances between the lives of four men who could not, on the surface, be more different. Where Euripides used Greek myths to dissect the human condition, Yu uses the chaos of mythic proportions to be found in the lives of these four men, and uses that to illuminate themes in the plays and make them resonate in new, startling, and intensely visceral ways. In the end, her film tells us more about Euripides’ keen insights and even keener representations of human nature at its most basic than any hard, cold facts about where he might have been born, or what he liked to have for breakfast could have.
PROTAGONIST does exactly what Euripides intended, affording the audience a cathartic experience while teasing it with questions that may be unanswerable. Why do people fly headlong as willing accomplices into their own personal disasters? What edges out the other in the nature-versus-nurture debate? And why is hubris the most deadly, and most persistent, of all human vices? It is fascinating, troubling, and scathingly brilliant in both concept and execution.