Stills from The Young Man Was, Part 1: United Red Army, 2012

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.

… actually only a fraction of the six-day period was recorded. There are some crucial moments toward 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.

The archives are in a state of continual flux, so a 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.

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

The hijack was a pivotal event for Japan, so a lot of television newscast material emerged around it. Because it was filmed for nightly news, these are mostly short shots, sometimes without sound, with just enough footage to cover the newscasters’ reading. So, you have a sequence where the relatives are waiting at the Tokyo airport, and the camera will pan and cut in all of five or ten seconds. There is no lingering shot to pick up accidental moments. (1)

I thought for a long time about the idea of making the entire film in darkness, with only text. I was curious about the effect of being in darkness for extended periods of time, the effect of the surprise of opening your eyes and finding yourself in the middle of the archive. When I first listened to the tapes (twenty-two hours, repeatedly, over many days) I started getting a little delirious—I was inside that story and straining to hear every word. There are patches where it is impossible to make out what is being said, and I kept playing them in the hope that, just this once, it would be clear. I wanted a structure that would induce people into that obsessive habitation of the story, without having to be immersed in the tapes for twenty two hours.

For a country with a history of military interventions into democracy (in both the Pakistan and Bangladesh periods), it is impossible to consider where politics might lead next without understanding those events. … The film is bracketed within the larger The Young Man Was project, which is, among other things, an inquiry into the compulsions that make people join messianic movements that, from our temporality, seem doomed, but from within their contexts must have appeared to hold some potential. (2)

Naeem Mohaiemen works in Dhaka and New York, exploring histories of the international left and utopia-dystopia slippage through essays, photography, and film. His projects have looked at militarization (My Mobile Weighs A Ton, Dhaka Gallery Chitrak), surveillance (Otondro Prohori, Guarding Who?, Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy), partition of India (Kazi in Nomansland, Johnson Museum), and architectural nationalism (Penn Station Kills Me, Exit Art). Since 2006, he has worked on The Young Man Was, a long-form research project about the Bangladeshi ultra-left, in multiple chapters and locations, including the New Museum, Sharjah Biennial, and Frieze. Project themes have been described as “not yet disillusioned fully with the capacity of human society” (Vijay Prashad, Take on Art) and “ultimately more illuminating than Jacques Rancière’s microscopic examinations of the utopian kernels” (Ben Davis, Artnet).

(1) Excerpted from: Naeem Mohaiemen, Interview by Ursula Biemann, 009.01 NAEEM MOHAIEMEN.

(2) Excerpted from: Naeem Mohaiemen, Interview by Rasha Salti, Archive Fever: A Conversation Between Naeem Mohaiemen, Maha Maamoun and Rania Stephan. Manifesta Journal #14