shadow-boxing with hi(s-)story
The Young Man Was (Part I: United Red Army)
If art attracts us, as Godard said, only by what it reveals of our most secret self, 'United Red Army' succeeds, not only in reclaiming our rights to historicise the subjective experience of a chronology of events which, for its obscurity from the pages of history, could easily be subject to political objectification. Art, after all, is the great robber of life, and its greatest revelation is truth by other means. Albert Camus, criticizing and at the same time praising Sartre's Nausea, spoke of how Sartre had broken the balance between his novel's theories and its life by moving from the descriptive to the philosophical aspects of the novel too rapidly: 'the passage from one to the other is too rapid, too unmotivated, to evoke in the reader the deep conviction that makes art of the novel.' Camus was speaking of the novel, but all art that has some philosophical intent ('agenda') and narrative sequence persuades through this seamless passage, even if the conviction evoked is a sense of ambiguity and nuance.
This effect is partly produced by what Jean-luc Godard described as the relationship between content and style. Naeem Mohaiemen's approach to the content-style intactfullness of art succeeds in his 'stylish,' unlikely experimental film, United Red Army. Set in the curious moment of the 1977 hijacking of Japan Airline Flight JAL 472 by the revolutionary left group, Japanese Red Army, and their landing in Dhaka airport, the film covers six days of dialogue between Air Vice Marshal Mahmud at the air control tower and URA leader Dankesu over letiation of hostages and prisoners. Mohaiemen uses ambiguity, disorientation and 'distancing' to evoke an 'uneasy' critical (partly literally) reading of the film. In screenings outside Bangladesh, as in the Sharjah Biennal in March 2011, the outer darkness of the viewing space was used to invoke a double disorientation during most of the film's black screen visuals. Mohaiemen, in an interview in Art Territories, spoke of the moment when the darkness recedes: '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.'
Mohaiemen is the narrator of his own story and the anthropologist circumambulating history from the disorientation of memory: his rendering of fragmentary awareness and adult commentary in a voice that is neither emotional, nor completely detached, creates a certain distanciation between viewer and the 'young man that was.' The audience is, rather, pulled towards identifying and dis-identifying alternately with Marshal Mahmud and Dankesu, two men who are never seen on camera, nor able to see each other, but are shadow-boxing other enemies even as they negotiate, demand and deal. The use of the transcript of audio recordings (in mostly red and green 'subtitles'— echo, actually, of the heard, red for URA leader Dankesu and green for Marshal Mahmud, the chief) and black and white (almost 'silken' grey and white actually, precious, hazy) archival news footage of the 1970s and the beautiful (almost nostalgic) retrieved images from Zoo Gang TV hints at the anti-romance within the thriller. One of the anti-climatic and most memorable lines of the film occurs when Mahmud says, 'now that you've found your friend… you've forgotten me.' Mohaiemen maneuvers such moments, in addition to the use of 'echo/doubling' ('subtitles' that are really the written visual accompanying the audible conversation) as a moment/frame/visual (just as a line of poetry goes one line at a time, pacing thought to the time it takes for that line to register, in cadence with all the other lines), to gentle effect, such as the moment of sensed betrayal when Dankesu realizes his 'friend' may well be allied with his enemy, alternating relief and tension, connection and the solitude of their positions, ultimately producing a film that empathizes with the complicated subjectivity of the social individual before his ideology and agency, and at the same time, urges dis-identification with those ideologies and agencies.
Reviews have lingered on the 'audience interaction innovation'- through the use of principally 'heard' and 'read' dialogue on a black screen. Yet, this innovation should not lead us to ignore the extent to which the to-and-fro from disembodied sounds and subtitles, to the suggestive and yet also restrained commentary which urges connections between one extreme of a great moral idea (a People's Republic of Japan) alchemizing into terror visiting another extreme of deleting an ideology through sheer force (the then-regime's erasure of socialism from the constitution), is a motivated sequence of magnified moments – sometimes mere statements – and pieces of history. Mohaiemen is heard saying: 'In the memory hole, it's always 1977./ I'm still 8 years old. /Watching every moment of the eighty hour standoff./ Staring with confusion at a scene that never ends./ Waiting for my favorite TV show. Zoo Gang, with chameleon heroes and Nazi villains./ That's the only reason I'm still sitting in front of the TV set.' This external dream space tying the young boy to 'chameleon' heroes is replaced for eighty hours by the chameleon heroes and villains of history, but as a negative space – an absence/darkness/background which we now begin to see the edges of.
Mohaiemen begins at a moment – Dankesu calling Mahmud – around which all moments of the film emanate. The kidnapper/red soldier Dankesu's introduction of the Red Army, their demand for prisoners in exchange for hostages and its choice of Bangladesh as fueling ground is disarmingly sincere, straightforward and terrifying. One of the first lines we hear describes the torture and death of a JRA comrade by the Jordanian government. As the black and white footage of the Tower and runway is seen, Mohaiemen is heard saying: 'People eventually left global terror networks because, as they discovered, the leaders would sleep with anyone. This was meant metaphorically of course, but also to put truth to Andreas Baader's cowboy taunt in a Jordanian training camp: “sex and violence, it's the same thing”.' The film eventually gives a glimpse into the extremism of the JRA through the most disturbing images of the film: the internal purification 'fratricides' within the party. Brother killing brother… comrade betrayed by weakness…
These images are presented only after a strange friendship is developing between the air-stranded kidnapper, lonely and beyond the point of return, in their utter distrust of the enemy (the 'sneaky' governments, representative of the greater enemy, the bourgeoisie), and the man in charge of preserving the integrity of the new government in Bangladesh, held ransom for the perceived fraternity between a 'popular, Islamic (and hence, apparently anti-hegemonic) government and the red soldiers who are fighting for a People's Republic of Japan. A dramatic and psychological hook and climax holds us in the tense bond created between Dankesu and Mahmud: the irony of their temporary 'need' for the other, the desperation of their positions, the problem of translation (which is after all, a translation of entire worlds, somehow made 'translatable' by a moment of comprehension) the bittersweet, comic and pathetic recognition that they are both fighters and the bond depends on Mahmud proving they are on the same side of the wall between 'people' and 'anti-people.' The one explicit political commentary that jarred with this reviewer was the implied irony in the young man's comment on Dankesu's perception that the Zia government was a popular (and Islamic, thus oppositional to the hegemonic capitalist powers) regime. The government that had come in had been popular. But perhaps this was an 'implicit' ambiguity lost in (voice-over) translation.
As a unique kind of juxtaposition of sound and image, the historical film has its own dangers, its own art, and intensifies the 'reality-art' give-and-take – 'the taking from and giving back to life' which Godard believed distinguished the cinema from the other arts. The simplest trick at the hands of a storyteller is the manner of unfolding structurally from beginning to end, and in film, this occurs at a rate of 'Truth 24 frames a second' (Godard). The Bangladeshi drama unfolding at the edge of the main story, the coup that did not succeed, is mentioned almost as an epilogue, and it is up to the viewer to decide, from their own disparate 'appendices', whether to accept this forgotten bullet-wound in history as a significant opening into a 'watershed' event. Beyond his politico-personal project, Mohaiemen sees this moment as a watershed in state stances towards terror networks. The dubious victory of both sides – a rare, bloodless exchange of URA prisoners, he says, led to a harder, non-negotiating stance by governments since. The film ends with a resumption of 'television time', through an airport reunion scene of Zoo Gang: the lights go up and, it is in this dubious clarity, the return to real time – history – that the retrieved histories threaten to remove the ground on which the present stands. Mohaiemen's work has consistently dealt with our history's unseen alter ego, as well as the junctures of suspension/climax and anti-climax where utopian projects failed (some even approaching dystopia). Film has, of course, played a subversive role in countries where freedom of speech is a dubious fundamental right. It is up to artists like Mohaiemen to approach the 'terror' of self-censorship from vantage points of freedom... today as the streets ache for speech, and speech, artfully accepts the mystery of telling it like it is…