Film still from The Young Man Was (Part 1, United Red Army) by Naeem Mohaiemen, 2011.

Naeem Mohaiemen’s new film The Young Man Was (Part 1, United Red Army), installed at the last Sharjah Biennial, hit me without warning. Stepping from the glaring light into the dark space of an ancient building, I saw myself staring at projected text fragments accompanying the strangest of conversations. The experience was captivating enough to keep me watching the full 67 minutes, and later engage Naeem in a conversation about it. His writing and experiential artwork explores the failed utopias of the revolutionary left of the 1970s. I was curious how he regenerates an episode in the history of young Bangladesh with the little archival material that survived the various regimes.

Ursula: Everyone watching your film on the event of the Japanese faction taking a Japanese Airlines flight hostage in Dhaka will ask how you got this unique material. It is not your usual compilation of news footage you would find in television archives. How did you access the original sound recording of the negotiation between the Japanese Red Army hijacker and the control tower? How did you go about this research?

Naeem: There was a lot of looking and not finding, or finding the wrong thing, and then almost by serendipity, the material arrived. I was watching a Japanese television documentary and in one scene you see a briefcase with the audio-cassettes. That was my first glimpse that tapes were being made.

You said “entire,” but actually only a fraction of the six-day period was recorded. There are some crucial moments towards the end, after the breakdown, when the tape was probably switched off. There are large portions of the last two days missing. What remained were fragments that allowed the reconstruction of a timeline.

There is an apocryphal story I heard about filmmaker Tareque Masud. After he got married to Catherine Shapere (his longtime directing partner), someone told him: when you go to America, try to track down a filmmaker who followed us around during the 1971 war. Well, eventually Tareque tracked down Lear Levin in his Manhattan apartment– and in the basement of that apartment was all the footage from 1971. The Masuds’ genre-defining documentary Muktir Gaan was constructed almost entirely from Levin’s 35 mm footage, treating it in some ways as “found footage,” the base for a coherent story and soundtrack that Tareque built up. So we always imagined there are other Levins out there, with more stories.

Finding the negotiation audio tapes was a comparable moment for me– it opened up imaginative possibilities.

Ursula: Scale is obviously a big issue here since your film speaks of a drama on the world stage of politics through a most intimate conversation between two men locked to a microphone. Their stakes are high, every minute utterance counts. How did you enter this psycho-space in your cinematic language?

Naeem: I intended to construct a claustrophobic space where, for long periods, there is only black and text. When it was installed in a large, black room at Sharjah, this worked well. People would walk in and be disoriented by the darkness. They would see the text on screen and expect, from past experience, that it would pass. Then the minutes would go by, and I am sure some people would start thinking, “Is the whole film like this?” I would sit in the back of the room and observe them. People would stand for a long time and then, when the archival footage appeared, they would finally see by that reflected light that there was a bench, and then they would, maybe, sit down. This whole process of disorientation was helpful to a certain reading of the film. A moment when you pull back, stand at a distance. You think now things will be clearer, people will come into focus, but the light is too bright and you can manage only to make out shapes of events.

Film still from The Young Man Was (Part 1, United Red Army) by Naeem Mohaiemen, 2012.

Ursula: When viewing the video in space, during a screening, that’s indeed very effective, it really becomes a physical experience. So you evoke this starkness of confrontation and suspense purely through editing. Since temporalities, gaps and visual surprises are such crucial aesthetic strategies of yours, I find it all the more significant that you address the fact that Japanese terrorists could pass under the radar of visual airport controls or that certain news images didn’t register, went unnoticed, it’s as if images resist an expected performance.

Naeem: I have thought about screening it in a theater with a set start time, to make it more legible. One thing that changes with the black box installation is that, depending on when people walk in, the buildup that leads to the collapse in the talks can be obscured. I have also discussed this with my partner on this project Michikazu Matsune (director of research on the film), and he said: “I personally imagine that the film comes across more strongly if it is seen from the beginning and that the audience follows the whole dramaturgy of suspension developed throughout the film.”

On the other hand, something is gained from giving the audience a path to walk in and out of the story—the register changes so much within the negotiation, the moment when they walk in defines which story they watch (especially if they do not stay for all of it).

Ursula: The most striking thing about the dialog between the Bangladeshi negotiating commander and Danke, the leader of the hijackers inside the plane, is the psychological dimension of their rapport. It goes from establishing friendship between them to throwing in ethical considerations, from national concerns to using ideological tricks. Finally he outs himself angrily as this poor sleepless negotiator. There is a wide spectrum of emotions these two go through with each other.

Naeem: Shumon Basar wrote about their dynamic in Tank: “this marathon exchange, as we hear the crackly voices of these two strangers hurled into a forced, awkward intimacy. Perhaps because English is second language to both men, the tone with which they start their discussion is peculiarly polite, until the accord between ransom and reason gives way to breaking point.”

I have described it as a form of reverse Stockholm Syndrome; by the end Dankesu seems to be in some sort of hypnotic thrall to the lead negotiator. There are moments when Mahmood’s assertiveness surprises you, he almost seemed to have no fear of the hijackers—which of course was possibly a negotiating pose, inside he must have been trying to hold so many pieces together.

Film still from The Young Man Was (Part 1, United Red Army) by Naeem Mohaiemen, 2012.

Ursula: How does this film relate to actual archive practices in Bangladesh? Because that’s what it is, a film based on archival material, but then again it’s not.

Naeem: The archives are in a state of continual flux, so lot of research practices have evolved in the shadow of missing documents. I have experienced this directly on many occasions. During a research session combing through photocopies of archival documents, I asked the custodian where the originals were. The documents he had were pristine yet distant, copies of copies of copies. The originals are long gone, he explained. Every time there is a change in government, an official inevitably comes down to the storeroom and asks to see what is inside. With a tradition of abrupt and forced pala bodol (changing of the guard), every state functionary assumes that nothing that came before his time will help his cause. Therefore, the safest path is to destroy all documents, which the official does with mechanical and unemotional efficiency. The cause is, of course, not documenting the war, but only of preserving the parts of it that can help the party in power.

In the absence of records, some fairly elaborate recreations have evolved. In Masud’s Muktir Gaan, there is a recreated scene of soldiers engaged in a night mission. But you don’t have any signaling device for separating this scene from the historic footage. Also, Levin’s actual footage also has some highly stylized scenes, as when the wandering musical troupe are embracing soldiers in liberated zones. The awkward staged feel of that scene telegraphs the post-war chasm that would open up between the aspirational slogans of “independence for all” and the reality of the middle class and elite’s grip on power.

Within this context, I felt that it was quite appropriate that I was working with absence, a zone of no images.

Image from Tareque & Catherine Masud’s Muktir Gaan (1995).

Ursula: Where do you see the main function of your voice-over? You seem to fill in the gaps between pieces of factual information with assumptions as to why, for instance, the commander in the control tower might not have known the particularly bloody history of the Japanese terrorists.

Naeem: I have talked elsewhere about the role of a certain anti-romance that permeates my writing about this period, and the narration in this film is an extension of that. I believe in the power of left political movements to create just, equitable societies. But I am cautious about utopia projects in extremis, and certainly skeptical of movements that argue that the end justifies “any means.” The 1970s leave us with questions about self-sabotage and missed opportunities. In Bangladesh, the rupture came in 1975: Sheikh Mujib’s assassination, the coup and countercoup, and finally the arrival of a military junta. If not for that year, would the left project have succeeded there? It would have been a transformed country – but it could also have become Stalinist. Which possibility does history hint at?

So, there are flashes of romantic longing for a period of challenge and ideology, but it is always tempered by warning and caution.

Ursula: I see a continuity there with your previous project Live True Life or Die Trying, where you tackle group dynamics, the building and collapse of sympathies in the political landscape in Bangladesh. Can you talk a bit about that project?

Naeem: The dynamic that was my focus in that project was the decline of the left. Their inability to capture the national imagination, or seize the moment, has been at the fulcrum of our ongoing political crises– trapped between several untenable choices. I was recently looking at an op-ed I had written in early 2007 (right after the military government took over), where I described the experience of filming a secular political rally, and the desire to will it to be larger than what it was. On that day I had written:

The rallies of the secularists are gender-mixed, with women dominating the chants. There is no uniform, but everyone is in colorful saris and warm looking shawls. Inside the camera frame was an inspiring (and cinematic) sight of fluttering green and red flags, with marchers chanting Ekatthur er Rajakar/Ajker Bomabaj and Al Badar Rajaka /Ajkei Bangla Char. But outside the frame was the startling fact that the secular rally had drawn only a few dozen people. As they marched through Dhaka University, not a single student joined them. Perhaps they didn’t understand the chants. Or more likely, they were busy thinking of shopping or taking a phone call: “Ki Rejwan, nishchoy girlfriend shathey? Good, good.”

[“Tattered blood-green flag: Secularism in crisis,” Daily Star, February 26th, 2007.]

The Live True Life project comes from a similar day in January 2009. On that day, there were two identical rallies called by Islamist and Left student groups. Although I hoped for a different contour, the Islamist rally was undeniably larger to my disappointment. Parts of this project is about confronting the limits of that type of wish-fulfillment politics, as well as an underlying critique of photo journalism’s mode of “defining moment” images.

Ursula: You are critical of the various third forces that fatally weakened the democratic state, but your work actually focuses on the failed left. It is as if a middle ground was entirely absent. Is the only possible position right now to move around the edges?

Naeem: My sympathies and alignment are with the left, in Bangladesh and elsewhere. But at least within the Bangladesh context, much of the left’s history has been sketched within the contours of what-could-have-been. In Live True, I described that emotion as of a lover, trying again, one last time, flower in hand:

Weaving in and out of the crowd, I’m thinking of other men, other era. Those who survived the jails and manhunts are much older now. When I meet them they’re always talking about failed dreams. Some argue the historic moment was not right. Others blame organizational weakness. We didn’t study enough Marx and Lenin. We never understood dialectic materialism. Always men, slightly broken, talking about the what-if moment of the last century.

Ursula: On my last trip to Bangladesh last winter, I drove down Jessore Road, though not in September. Any affinities with political poets?

Naeem: Well, you just referenced Allen Ginsberg’s September in Jessore Road, and I am very fond of the Bengali song version of that poem– by Mousumi Bhowmik, for Tareque Masud’s Muktir Kotha (sequel to Muktir Gaan).

Some of my affinities come from the act of translating poetry. I translated Ginsberg’s World Bank Blues for a Prothom Alo special issue, the week after he died in New York.

Other translations were in the context of specific projects– Farhad Mazhar for an essay on the evolution of the Bangla left; Kazi Nazrul Islam for Kazi in Nomansland (part of Lines of Control, now at Hubert Johnson Museum).


Now, I am reading H.D.’s collection of three long poems in Trilogy (1944-1946)– civilian war poetry written under the devastating impact of World War II:

But she spoke so he looked at her,/she was shy and simple and young;
she said, Sir, it is a most beautiful fragrance,/as of all flowering things together;
but Kaspar knew the seal of the jar was unbroken./he did not know whether she knew
the fragrance came from the bundle of myrrh/she held in her arms.

Published March 29, 2012.