Complicating the History of the Left

Complicating the History of the Left
"Der Weisse Engel," 2011. Video, photographs, and text.

For many who followed developments at and around Zuccotti Park last fall through Naeem Mohaiemen’s prolific Facebook posts, his occasional asides — excerpted dialogue from the cult-hit 1990s teen drama "My So-Called Life"; the box-office performance of the latest installment of the "Harold & Kumar" franchise; a negative review of Steven Spielberg’s recently released film "The Adventures of Tintin" — may have seemed out of character. But anyone acquainted with Mohaiemen or his work knows that he is a keen but somewhat perverse polymath, whose possible subjects of analysis run the gamut from newsworthy events of historical record to the sorts of minor cultural artifacts that constitute what the literary theorist Lauren Berlant has dubbed the “silly archive.” Employing photography, video, and text — formats commonly used by the traditional news media — Mohaiemen, an artist, activist, and writer dually based in New York and Dhaka, Bangladesh, embeds painstaking archival research into a web of richly observed personal anecdotes and pop-culture references, presenting an idiosyncratically annotated narrative that enriches, complicates, and challenges dominant historical accounts.

Take Mohaiemen’s contribution to last year’s Sharjah Biennial: "The Young Man Was (Part 1: United Red Army)," a 67-minute video about the September 28, 1977, hijacking of Japan Airlines Flight 472, en route from Paris to Tokyo to Dhaka, by a unit of the Japanese Red Army. The film is anchored and bracketed by Mohaiemen’s personal memory of himself as a frustrated eight-year-old whose favorite TV show, "The Zoo Gang," was superseded by a live broadcast of the hijacking-and-hostage crisis. An unprecedented media event for the young nation of Bangladesh, whose broadcast capabilities at the time were rudimentary at best, the airplane drama dragged on for days, a seeming eternity for the little boy awaiting the return of his beloved show. 

 

While researching the project, Mohaiemen stumbled upon archival audio-recordings of the marathon radio negotiations between the hijackers’ representative, code-named Dankesu, and the Bangladeshi hostage negotiator, Air Vice Marshall A. G. Mahmud, operating from the control tower. As might be expected, in the film, Mohaiemen intersperses excerpts from these recordings with snippets of archival video — blurry bits of the original black-and-white broadcast; Japanese, American, and local news coverage of the standoff; the wonderfully dated opening credits of "The Zoo Gang"; and a sequence from a film starring one of the airplane hostages, the actress Carole Wells — all held together by his measured voice-over, which fills in the broader historical and political context.

Mohaiemen’s treatment of the audio makes the film stand out. Fascinated by the deliberate, halting rhythm of the exchange between the two negotiators — the result, possibly, of the simple fact that English was the mother tongue of neither man — Mohaiemen chose to visualize what we hear as short phrases of colored text on the black screen. With Dankesu’s words in red and Mahmud’s in green, the echoing of sound through visual text gives the dialogue added weight. Unchallenged by image, subtle shifts in intonation, emotion, composure, and energy are amplified, as relations between the two men change during the course of the ordeal. Terse and businesslike at first, they soon become unexpectedly warm and cordial, a product of their forced intimacy. By the end, as the negotiations break down and the crisis reaches its climax, frustration and sheer exhaustion reduce Dankesu to a single-worded reticence and drive Mahmud to hysterical moments of voice-cracking desperation; he appears like a jilted lover trying to win back his beloved.

After a tense standoff and interminable delays, the hijackers' demands — $6 million and the release of nine jailed comrades (only six agreed to go) — were met, the last time a government acquiesced to terrorists. But there is more to the story. The hijackers had headed to what they thought was an “independent, Islamic, and popular” Bangladesh, which would be sympathetic to their cause; they were unaware that a series of coups since its independence from Pakistan had resulted in a martial rather than a democratic government. And in the midst of the airplane-hostage crisis, a group of Bangladeshi officers attempted another, unsuccessful coup at the airport — with events unfolding before the hijackers and the hostages. On Mohaiemen’s soundtrack, we hear Mahmud imploring Dankesu to shoot and kill the mutineers; Dankesu replies mechanically, with a euphemism that smacks of the strategic language of international diplomacy: “I have understood that you have internal problems.” And the hostages inadvertently witness and photograph the drama from inside the aircraft. While only 11 died on the tarmac, hundreds of suspected plotters were rounded up afterwards and summarily tried and executed, with far-reaching implications for Bangladeshi politics and history. 

The film is a chapter in an ongoing multidisciplinary research project titled "The Young Man Was…," which Mohaiemen began in 2006. Excavating and dissecting the interwoven histories of failed leftist revolutionary movements of the 1970s — both in his native Bangladesh and around the world — Mohaiemen extracts episodes from their complicated trajectories as the tremendous promise of collective utopian aspirations gave way to exhaustion, misguided violence, and failed attempts at nation building. Rather than attempt a comprehensive account of the tumultuous decade, Mohaiemen’s geographically expansive approach seeks universal lessons through specific case studies, in which he zooms in on particular figures and flash points. With a skepticism that tempers easy nostalgia for past idealist fervor, Mohaiemen examines the unintended consequences of adopting violent means to further a revolutionary cause: It enabled and justified equally violent counterrevolutionary responses, thereby consolidating the power of the Right. Finally, the extreme methods deployed by the radical Left were, Mohaiemen suggests, an “accidental Trojan horse” that sabotaged the movement’s broader ongoing struggles.   

For an earlier chapter in the project, "I Have Killed Pharaoh," 2010, Mohaiemen investigated these ideas through the shadowy circumstances surrounding the downfall of Bangladesh’s founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Across three sets of paired text- and-image panels, more allusive than archival in tenor, Mohaiemen suggests that Mujibur’s eventual assassination, in 1975, was inevitable, carefully planned, and not unexpected — an unintended consequence of his heavy-handed crackdown on ultraleftist guerillas who considered him too bourgeois, which distracted him from the rising tide of rightist Islamist sentiment in the army. Two accompanying sculptures address the assassination’s collateral damage: With the exception of two daughters who happened to be abroad at the time, Mujibur’s entire family was murdered; one of the spared daughters, Sheikh Hasina Wazed, went on to become prime minister and presided over the 2010 execution of the coup’s plotters. Mohaiemen used expired Polaroid film to rephotograph images of the dead — Mujibur’s innocent kin, and the men accused of orchestrating their assassination — from newspapers and then embedded the spectral images in blocks of clear resin. Rescued from oblivion and entombed for eternity, history’s minor players become its lingering ghosts.

An implicit theme running throughout these distinct chapters, and Mohaiemen’s broader practice, is a reflection on the conditions of masculinity that shape these cultures of radicalism and, possibly, doom them to failure. In the text-and-image collage "Sartre kommt nach Stammheim" (Sartre Comes to Stammheim), 2007, the French existentialist philosopher’s visit with the imprisoned Andreas Baader unfolds as an oedipal confrontation between two generations of the Left, in which the elder intellectual’s solidarity is tested by the virile, reckless, and finally ineffectual idealism of youth. And in "Der Weisse Engel," (The White Angel), 2011, Mohaiemen reflects on the idealized figure of the “Muskel-Juden,” the hypermasculine heroic Jew, playing out a cathartic revenge fantasy of delayed retribution for the genocide committed by the Pakistani Army during Bangladesh’s 1971 war of liberation, through appropriated footage and dialogue from the 1976 film "Marathon Man," in which Dustin Hoffman’s Babe, a hapless history student studying for a Ph.D., an erstwhile stand-in for Mohaiemen, survives repeated torture and emerges victorious over Szell, a notorious Nazi war criminal played by Laurence Olivier. 

This series of interlinked portraits of several men of action, both historical and fictional, reveals the personal and political stakes of Mohaiemen’s research for the artist, himself a man of action. By taking stock of the various means deployed by these men and the intended and unintended consequences of their actions, Mohaiemen hopes to learn from the past, channeling his subjects’ commitment to Leftist ideals into the progressive political struggles of the present, without repeating their many failures.

 

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