Hot Docs 1: The Young Man Was (Part 1: United Red Army)

The Young Man Was (Part 1: United Red Army). 2011. Naeem Mohaiemen.

Still from The Young Man Was (Part 1: United Red Army) 2011. Dir. Naeem Mohaiemen.

Naeem Mohaiemen’s documentary recounts the story of the hijacking of Japan Air Lines 472 on September 28, 1977. The flight departed from Tokyo and was destined for Bombay, but was forced by its hijackers to land in Dhaka, Bangladesh. What followed was an epic effort to contain and curtail the crisis, with negotiations lasting six days and led from the control tower by Captain Mahmood, a representative of Bangladesh’s military government.

The film draws on archival film and video footage to tell this story, but runs up against the limits of the visual archive. Bangladeshi state TV covered the events live and around the clock, but a visual record of this coverage by and large does not remain. What did survive, however, was a series of cassette tapes that captured the conversations between the control tower and cockpit, between negotiator and hijacker. The bulk of the film consists of a skillful selection of these imperfect analogue audio recordings accompanied by their onscreen transcription. This may sound like the stuff of radio documentary rather than that of cinema, but this is definitely not the case. The Young Man Was (Part 1: United Red Army) is in its own way as gripping as any conventional thriller but is also a compelling film essay that works through the relationship between memory and the archive, and the disconnection between the recent revolutionary past and a present that only hazily remembers it.

Still from The Young Man Was (Part 1: United Red Army). 2011. Dir. Naeem Mohaiemen.

Perhaps the most striking thing documented in the film is the relationship that develops between the man in the tower, Mahmood, and the United Red Army hijacker, who goes by the name Danke. Their exchanges, for the most part, are exceedingly polite. Mahmood repeatedly assures Danke over the six days that, working together, his “problem can be solved.” This phrasing itself provides insight into Mahmood – he exudes a steady pragmatism but, off mic and in conversation with others in the control room, also fancies himself an amateur psychologist, constantly gauging his influence over Danke and reading into the lead hijacker’s reactions the effects of his own calm and patient negotiations. This makes it all the more traumatic for Mahmood when Danke, frustrated with the delays in having his demands met by the Japanese government, lashes out and unexpectedly taxis the plane back onto the runway.

Another curious aspect of the dialogue between the two men is the role language plays. The men speak to one another in English and are very careful to ensure that they understand one another through the medium of this second language. Danke is less assured of his fluency than Mahmood, who articulateness is amplified by the care with which he expresses his ideas and the deliberately slow rhythm of his speech. Danke apologizes on occasion throughout the negotiations for his inability to properly express his ideas and demands. Mahmood is unfailingly patient in these moments, and there is an odd tenderness that arises in this exchange between two men caught in a larger geopolitical web: a Japanese hijacker talking to a Bangledeshi military commander in English about a handful of Americans on the flight, but also about the corruption of the Japanese government and the desired escape to Algiers.

Mahmood is anxious to protect the reputation of his country and tells Danke that any reckless action on his part will hurt workers in Bangladesh rather than his intended target, the Japanese government. The film notes ironically that Mahmood was part of a military government that came to power in 1975 and had little regard for the workers he invokes and that landing in Dhaka in the first place was an error on the part of the United Red Army hijackers who erroneously thought the country was still under socialist control. It may seem somewhat odd to suggest that the event had its moments of comedy, but Mohaiemen’s film is deft in the way that it brings these out, from Mahmood’s struggle to comprehend why Danke asks for “alcool” (he wanted ethyl alcohol to care for wounds and injuries) to the entire context of a scenario in which ultra-left hijackers land in what they think is a friendly country and a canny military man treats them with a respect equal to, if not exceeding, that which they would have received had their bungled version of Bangladeshi history actually been true.

Still from The Young Man Was (Part 1: United Red Army). 2011. Dir. Naeem Mohaiemen.

Mohaiemen frames this archival retelling of the hijacking crisis with his own memories of the event. He was a child when these events occurred and remembers them so vividly at least in part because he resented that their coverage on the state broadcaster meant that his favorite programme, The Zoo Gang, was bumped from the schedule.

The Zoo Gang was a 6-part British drama produced by ITV in 1974 that tells the story of how 4 resistance fighters from World War II reunite in the early 1970s to track down another member of their gang who had betrayed them to the Gestapo. The series was shot primarily in the south of France and featured the aging members of the Zoo Gang (all of whom have animal code names and came from America, Canada, England, and France respectively) triapsing around the Cote d’Azur funding their hunt by scamming con artists and stealing from criminals.

The series sounds very much like the kind of light adventure in an exotic locale that was oddly successful in the 1970s, especially in the colonies. The series aired in Canada on the CBC in 1974 and the presence of Barry Morse (a British actor who emigrated to Canada in the 50s and appeared regularly on Canadian TV) suggested that it may have been an international co-production. In a bold move, Mohaiemen begins and ends his film with clips from The Zoo Gang, juxtaposing its bracing opening credit sequence against the tense negotiations the follow in its wake. By doing so the film raises all kinds of questions: How does the clear heroism of WWII contrast with the fallen, and far more confusing, political times of the 1970s? How do we distinguish political terrorism from political resistance? What counts as war and what counts as terror?

I’ve phrased these questions incredibly poorly, but I hope that it’s clear that Mohaiemen’s inclusion of The Zoo Gang material isn’t incidental or frivolous. It powerfully conveys something about the structure of feeling of the mid-1970s: how the nostalgia for the political clarity of WWII amounts to an incapacity or unwillingness to face up to the new political situation of the decade, from the initial sputters of a faltering world economy, to the ongoing tensions of the process of decolonization, to the rise of ultra-left movements in the midst of this political uncertainty, to the reaction of the right to all these things.

The excerpt above provides a sense not simply of the film’s formal innovations but also of its tension and surprising tenderness. At its best, The Young Man Was (Part 1: United Red Army) feels like a lost chapter of Chris Marker’s epic history of the revolutionary upheavals of the 1960s and 70s, Le fond de l’air est rouge/Grin Without a Cat (1977). And, as its title suggests, Mohaiemen’s film is part of a larger project that seeks, like Marker’s film, to document and investigate the ultra-left movements of the 1970s, but also to trace their impact and aftereffects, both personal and political. For me, it was the best of the fest, and one of those quintessential film festival experiences where you go to a film because of the allure of the synopsis or of the still that accompanies it, and end up seeing something truly extraordinary that sticks tenaciously with you.


Naeem Mohaiemen’s website. link.

Rasha Salti. “Archive Fever: A Conversation Between Naeem Mohaiemen, Maha Maamoun and Rania Stephan.” Manifesta Journal: Around Curatorial Practices 14 (2011). link.

Ursula Biemann. “Interview with Naeem Mohaiemen.” Art Territories 009.1 (2012). link.

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