The premise of the documentary is simple: Yu interlaces the stories of four men who, on the face of it, only seem to have a few things in common. As the film goes on, the relationships between the men's stories begin to come into focus, and it turns out that all four men have been struggling with various strains of traditional masculinity, and, though self-analyzing struggle, have found different sorts of masculinities to embrace.
I'm being extremely heavy-handed in my analysis, but the film itself has a pretty light touch. It wasn't until the last third of the movie that I realized that masculinity was really at the center of things for these men--and recognizing the ways in which they could reject rigid gender roles helped them to overcome some of the central difficulties of their lives. Feminism isn't mentioned by name here, and it's pretty clear that the men involved might not characterize themselves as doing feminist work, but, since feminist theory has done so much of the heavy lifting as regards railing against traditionally rigid gender roles, I say they are doing feminist work nonetheless.
I encourage everybody who is interested in documentary storytelling, men who are struggling with traditional conceptions of masculinity, and pro-feminist men in general to check out the film. And I don't think I can encourage you to do so more than by giving a bit of background on these four men. From the movie's site:
The Stories At the heart of each man's story is the quest to transcend his imperfections. While each man's motivations are highly personal, the stories demonstrate how the individual struggle between fate and character can have far-reaching consequences.
HANS-JOACHIM KLEIN suffers through a cruel childhood in a working class neighborhood near Frankfurt, Germany. When Klein joins the leftist movement in the 1970s, he is driven as much by idealism as by the desire to rebel against his authoritarian father, a cop. As Klein's activism evolves from radicalism to terrorism, he becomes a trusted comrade in the Revolutionary Cells (RZ), an offshoot of the notorious Baader-Meinhof gang. With the RZ he joins Carlos the Jackal in the violent kidnapping of eleven OPEC ministers, which leaves three people dead and Klein with a near-fatal gunshot wound.
MARK PIERPONT has a strict religious upbringing in New Jersey. The "black sheep" of the family, he realizes his attraction to other men, but desperately wants to avoid this sentence to "eternal hell." Pierpont's drive to suppress his homosexuality leads him to become a missionary, preaching abroad to crowds of thousands. Back in the states he infiltrates gay bars to spread the word of Jesus, convincing himself that his "homosexual problem" has been cured.
JOE LOYA also comes from a home steeped in both love and fear of God, as enforced by his zealous father. At age seven, Loya's mother dies, and his father's grief explodes into violence against Joe and his brother. When Loya finally fights back against years of abuse, the act of dethroning his father ignites a sense of intense power, of triumph over hypocrisy and brutality. Loya's determination to recapture that thrill leads him to his own life of brutality, in which he eventually robs over thirty banks.
MARK SALZMAN comes from suburban Connecticut. The smallest boy in his class, he is the subject of relentless torment from his peers and his mild-mannered parents offer little guidance. Upon seeing the show "Kung Fu" on television, Salzman is convinced that he can achieve personal transformation through the study of martial arts. Though he becomes best friends with the chief bully in his school, Salzman's quest to become a man of physical and spiritual strength is warped by his allegiance to a sadistic master.
PROTAGONIST seeks not to judge its subjects or make political pronouncements, but rather to use these stories as a window into human nature. Though our subjects' backgrounds are diverse, their shared experience points to a universal conflict: the conflict between the desire to control our world, and to accept our fundamental limitations.
What these descriptions don't tell you is that all four men were able to creating something of a reversal of their own fortunes, even though there was still a cost associated with how they were before the reversal.
Thanks for Jessica Yu, and to these four men, for creating such an interesting window into the inner lives of men and their relationship to traditionally rigid conceptions of masculinity.