Naeem Mohaiemen b. 1969
United Red Army (The Young Man Was, Part I) (2011-2012)
United Red Army (The Young Man Was Part I) (70’, 2011) September 1977. The Japanese man speaks in halting English; the Bangladeshi negotiator with the clipped confidence of an army officer. A colour scheme suggests order in the exchange: green, red, and the occasional white. But underneath the schema of a dark screen—subtitle sans image—lies a waiting unravelling. The Japanese Red Army had attached to the Palestinian cause, and through that to an idea of global pan-Arabism. But the high-value hostage turned out to be an Armenian banker from California, and the Democratic Party Congressman on honeymoon negotiated a call to the White House only to be greeted by Jimmy Carter’s answering service. The hostage terrain was not an “Islamic Republic,” as the hijackers thought, but a turbulent new country ricocheting between polarities and imploding in the process.
Instead of being the willing platform for the Japanese Red Army’s ideas of “Third World revolution,” the actual Third World hit back in unexpected ways, turning the hijackers into helpless witnesses. The lead negotiator, codename “Dankesu,” says with baffled understatement and halting English: “I understand you have some internal problems.” An eight-year-old watches the television screen with growing confusion – the screen shows an unmoving control tower for hours on end, and he wants his favourite show to start again.
United Red Army premiered at the Sharjah Biennial in 2011. Sarinah Masukor described the film’s structure, specifically the archival images, as “ever on the verge of collapsing into abstraction, their materiality performs the indeterminacy of the event they record” ( West Space). The film is in the collection of the Tate Modern and the Kiran Nadar Museum.
The Young Man Was project examines the failures of radical, armed leftist movements of the 1970s. The protagonists often display misrecognition, ending up as an “accidental trojan horse” carrying tragic results to the countries in question (from Japanese hijackers commandeering Dhaka airport for “solidarity,” to migrant labor pipelines transformed into PLO “volunteers”). In spite of its failures, Mohaiemen’s reading of the potential of international left solidarity is still, always, one of hope. The first part (United Red Army, 2011) reconstructs the 1977 hijacking of Japan Airlines Flight 472 through a series of crisply polite negotiation tapes. The second film (Afsan’s Long Day, 2014) addresses the misrecognition of Marxist ideologies from the perspective of a young historian (Afsan Chowdhury, whose diary entry gives the series its name), slaloming between Bangladesh’s summer of tigers, and the German Autumn associated with the Rote Armee Fraktion. The third film (Last Man in Dhaka Central, 2015) traces, in reverse, the journey of Peter Custers, a Dutch journalist jailed in Bangladesh in 1975, accused of belonging to an underground armed Maoist group. A more recent short film, Abu Ammar is Coming (2016), digs into the illusions of a press photograph of “PLO fighters” taken by Chris Steele-Perkins for Magnum.
In the form of Peter Custers, who unfortunately passed away in 2015, many of the questions of The Young Man Was project take a personal form. What lies behind utopian hope, especially within the idea of socialism, against the weight of history and experience? What also of the men who survived those terrible times, unlike so many of their comrades, and now spend their waning days in solitary apartments, writing down memories? What was such a man then, and how does he remember himself today? Was he John Reed, recording the Russian Revolution, in the last free moment before the Thermidor? What does it mean to be a survivor and witness—the last man standing on the eve of another collapse, surveying the wreckage of the socialist dream in the middle of a horrific present that teeters on the cusp of the Anthropocene?