Touching the Face of the World

Sarinah Masukor



The first time I watch Naeem Mohaiemen’s United Red Army: The Young Man Was Part 1, I feel as if I’ve landed suddenly in an unknown place without a map. There are mechanical voices; hazy, disintegrating images; threats of violence; quick, knowledgeable references to names I recognise but are not part of my own intellectual makeup—Baader-Meinhoff, Henrich Böll, Sartre; and an ‘I’ whose subjectivity I can’t quite place. The ‘I’ speaks of his memories and of the impact of an historical event on his life, but the historical event is not one I know. As an 8 year old, he says, his favourite television show was The Zoo Gang. He offers the credit sequence. I am swimming in the waters that surround his island. The ‘I’ reaches across time and space, back to his eight-year-old self and eastward to me, a thirty-three-year-old Australian whose childhood did not involve The Zoo Gang, or terrorists, or military coups, and the affect is of a profound gap. Rather than connecting one experience of history to another, the narrator’s voice, with its contradictory tone of authority and emotion seems to emphasise the subjective particularity of how we create history.

On September 28th 1977, the Japanese Red Army hijacked flight JAL 472 and landed in Dhaka, where the plane sat on the tarmac for six days, its passengers marooned inside. Eventually, five of the group’s members were released from prison in exchange for them. It was to be the last time a government negotiated with a terrorist organisation. Constructed around audio recordings made during the long negotiation between the man in charge of the hijacking, code name Dankesu (is the name a deliberate play on, or accidental mishearing of, danketsu, meaning unity, I wonder?) and Mahmood, a captain in the Bangladesh military, United Red Army is a telling of that story held together by Mohaiemen’s own televisual encounter with the event. Eight years old, he tells us, he watched the warped, flickering image of a plane and a control tower, hopefully waiting for The Zoo Gang to come on. It didn’t. Instead, Bangladeshi television, which up until that point screened pre-recorded content, was thrust into the future with a live simulcast of the plane broadcast around the world. The Japanese Embassy, Mohaiemen says, donated surveillance equipment for the occasion.


The film opens with the date stamped in bold white typeface on a black screen. After it fades away, the space crackles with the sound of white noise and murmured conversation. Then clearly, in English: this is the Japanese Red Army speaking. The words appear onscreen at the same time, so the phrase is seen before it is heard, creating a strange lag between comprehension and hearing. The conversation is disjointed. The audio hiss throbs in and out, leaving moments of dead air as evidence of the film’s cutting. Although Mohaiemen structures the material into a flow that feels sequential, the cuts draw attention to the craft.

The deliberateness of this is not, I think, a reference to the medium’s patchwork qualities, but to the way political narratives are constructed, through rhetoric and action, to make sense of situations that are nonsensical. The hiss itself has the texture of the indeterminate—inconsistent in volume and intensity, dropping out altogether between statements. The graphic text, appearing always slightly ahead of the sound simply doubles what the men say, and this double reiteration places so much emphasis on what is being said that it places it in doubt. By maintaining a banal politeness, each man hopes to beguile the other, concealing the incommensurable fog with the illusion of simplicity. Dankesu asks for a fruit cup. Complexity is left unspoken.

Six minutes into the film, at a point when the spectator’s body has adopted the regular rhythm of the slow, deliberate voices and text, there is blackness, silence, and then the screen shivers to life with a wavering broadcast image. At first the image looks like a still, its movement coming from the nervy wavelengths, the wave cycle sometimes broad and sometimes condensed, so that the image appears ever on the verge of being shunted offscreen altogether. A voice-over begins, assured, intellectual, knowing. Like Chris Marker’s fictional anthropologist Sandor Krasna in Sans Soleil (1980) the narrator in United Red Army walks the narrow edge between the political world and the private interior. Racing back and forth along the teleology of left-resistance, I’m never certain whether the stories he tells are history or fiction.


United Red Army is interested in the way misconceptions can drive events and the way mediums of communication—language and media—can often fail to transmit. There is immediate confusion between the title of the film, United Red Army, referring to a revolutionary group formed in Japan in 1971, and the group carrying out the hijacking, the Japanese Red Army, formed in Palestine in the same year. Although both groups stemmed from the Red Army Faction, a militant Japanese communist group, I do not know if there was any later overlap. The Japanese Red Army was based in the Middle East.

That Dankesu and Mahmood were able to speak for six days is, Mohaiemen suggests, the result of misinformation and poor research. Bangladesh was ruled not by a popularly elected government as Dankesu believed, but a military regime. The United Red Army’s notoriety as an uncompromisingly strict organisation with a terrifying record of violence toward its own members was unknown in Bangladesh. But then, would that have mattered? Mahmood was dealing with the Japanese Red Army, whose politics and tactics were influenced by the PLFP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) with whom they trained. What is what? The film plays with a confusing jumble of equivalencies. Or perhaps it is I who am confused. Perhaps the United Red Army and the Japanese Red Army became one and the same after the United Red Army ceased activity in 1972. After all, my knowledge of the Japanese Red Army comes from a piece of their own propaganda: the film, made in 1971 by Masao Adachi, Red Army: PLFP: Declaration of World War.

It is apt then, that Dankesu and Mahmood must negotiate in a language neither is fully in command of. Foreign languages tend to make us more literal, as nuance and metaphor slip from our tongues. A conversation held in a language second to both parties doubles the possibility of misunderstanding, as each word passes through two sets of translation. At a moment when exhaustion and mistrust threaten to scuttle the negotiation, we hear Mahmood hold a private discussion with his attendant in the control tower over Dankesu’s choice of the word ‘welcome’. “He said welcome. The word welcome is a good word. He could have said ‘ok’, ‘alright’, ‘go ahead’, ‘take it’. This is a very selective word.” I wonder how selective it really was. But when so much hangs on how a word is received, intention counts for very little. And if the person who holds the language is the one who holds the balance of power, then in United Red Army the power is held neither by Dankesu or Mahmood, but by the foreign press, the Japanese Government, and, in the film itself, by Mohaiemen’s montage and narration. The two men performing the event, each contained in a bubble of metal and glass, an expanse of hot concrete between them, are playing supporting roles.



United Red Army is not so much interested in the particular schism between the Japanese Red Army and the Japanese Government, as it is in the way ideas of left resistance and their place in the cultural imagination have been reconfigured through time. In the television show postponed by the event, The Zoo Gang, the heroes are a group of former WWII resistance fighters, re-united thirty years later on the French Riviera for a series of crime-righting capers. Made in 1974, The Zoo Gang looks back on the WWII era with nostalgia, while simultaneously reasserting the superiority of the capitalist present. In United Red Army, The Zoo Gang acts as a détournement. With its glamorous band of retired resistance fighters living a life of television luxury in Nice, the show’s politics are ultimately conservative. And at the time of the show’s production, the left resistance were no longer fighting fascism, but capitalism – the very system the earlier resistance fought to uphold. As Ali Dur and McKenzie Wark write of détournement, “It makes for a type of communication that is aware of its inability to enshrine any inherent and definitive certainty.”1 The clear-cut lines between goodies and baddies in The Zoo Gang become less convincing when placed beside the ideological ambiguity and inconsistency of the Japanese Red Army and the Bangladesh regime.

In the rhetoric of radical collectives, there seems to be a certain disregard for the individual in favour of the idea. Members give themselves up for the cause. But in seeking to strike a blow to the individualism of capitalist and neo-liberal agendas, acts like hijacking only serve to intensify it. What better demonstrates an individual’s ability to create his or her own destiny than taking control of a plane and blowing it up on the tarmac? Just as the neo-liberal rhetoric of individualism does not necessarily support the individual, blurring the each person into an abstract ideal of self-reliance—a true impossibility and thus a truly utopian desire—through individual acts, collectives like the Japanese Red Army end up exemplifying exceptionalism (and by this I do not mean excellence).

This equivocality between resistance and state emerges in United Red Army through the juxtaposition of different strands of radical left action and culminates in the opening sequence of the second part of the The Young Man Was project, titled Afsan’s Long Day. Here, Mohaiemen describes going to photograph two consecutive rallies. The first is held by his left-leaning friends at the University;  the second by a fledgling Islamist group. What strikes him is that both groups of young men, liberal and conservative, are resisting the same thing: “Imperialism, United Nations, Multi-nationals”. What is important, he notes, is to resist. He wonders, “Is the difference now only in our icons?”

The blurring of right and left in Bangladesh’s current political climate, where the similarities between both sides confuse the message to all but their speakers, provides a mirror image to Mahmood’s willingness to attempt to negotiate with Dankesu. Although their local concerns could not have been more different, they both had little voice in the world of global politics. Toward the end of United Red Army, Mohaiemen asks Mahmood if there could have been a commando unit inside the Japanese Government special flight without him knowing it. Mahmood explains: a rich country can do anything in a poor one. The divide is greater then, between Bangladesh’s global political agency and the agency of countries with the means to purchase power, than it is between it’s own conservative and liberal citizens. Stated, this seems obvious, but on each island we interpret the situation of our lives in relation to our experience. It is easy to forget that the gap between how we live and how we want to live is not always dictated by the place we know.

One of the things Mohaiemen does best is to demonstrate the vast ambiguities that attend political events. This is further demonstrated in the uncomfortable distance between the tenor of the men’s voices and the violence of their existence. There is something chilling about the politeness and the banality. In fiction, their lines would be shaped to reveal both their motives and their personal morality. But in the recordings, their voices do not reveal much. Although Dankesu’s expression is sometimes blunt—“We begin execution”, he states—he comes across not as a caricature of a devoted member of a militant group, but a man struggling to communicate his beliefs in a language he finds difficult. At a tense point in the conversation, Mahmood tells his assistant that he is trying to appeal to the human in Dankesu. It’s the perspective of a man who understands the human capacity for violence—he will soon order the shooting of his own rebellious men.


A woman’s face, frozen and superimposed over a hazy purple-blue shot of the airstrip. The blue is the blue of worn tape, simultaneously faded and intense. We are nearing the end of the film, and the narrator at last plays the hand he has been concealing, dragging the story away from the world and back into his own personal context. For Mohaiemen, the hijacking is doubly violent, and this revelation, offered only ten minutes from the film’s end, renews the disorienting affect of its opening.

On the third day of the hijacking, while the world’s cameras were fixed on the plane, a group of rebel Air Force officers stormed the control tower and attempted a coup. Afterward, Mohaiemen says, thousands of men were executed in secret military tribunals. It is a decisive moment in Bangladesh’s political narrative, exposed in a handful of black and white stills.

A grainy image, blown up so that the far away becomes close and the edges of shadows collapse into one another. It is of a pair of lifeless legs, feet hanging over a step, fused together as if some force were pulling inward, the body closing up. It reminds me of the photograph in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow-up, with its stilled body, captured accidentally in the back of frame. Blow-up asks questions about the veracity of the image and the conditions of existence. How can you know if what you’re seeing is really there? And what if you can’t see it, or if the strip of film no longer exists? The film also explores the problem of becoming unwillingly involved in something through force of accident.

Mohaiemen observes that there might have been no record of what happened at the airport that day if not for the hijacked plane: the photographs of the attempted coup were taken by passengers sitting inside it. The narrator says, “Tourists become hostages become witnesses.” Witnesses, and also reporters. Sitting inside the plane with a restricted view of the tarmac and a glimpse of the country beyond, I wonder what the photographers thought they were capturing. Were the images accidental, or intentional? Some of them must have imagined that these moments in the plane would be their last, but, caught by chance, they continued to perform the same actions they would have performed on holiday. In the most unexpected of circumstances, their response was to record.


In 1971 radical filmmaker Masao Adachi went to document the Japanese Red Army training camp in Palestine. Adachi’s film Red Army/PLFP: Declaration of World War is a film of propaganda and landscape. The camera travels through the Palestinian countryside in long beautiful shots, through streets, along a beach and through the mountains. On the soundtrack, a PLFP fighter states, “Propaganda is in fact information.” The statement is troubling because it crystallises the blind conviction and manipulative logic of governments and terrorists alike, and when propaganda is information, then information is lost. For me, propaganda is always terrifying because it is unwaveringly certain, and when there is no room for doubt, there is also no room for honesty. But the propaganda of the Japanese Red Army was clearly potent, because a few years after making the film, Adachi abandoned filmmaking and joined them in Palestine. For Adachi, the act of recording led to participation.

Clear Doubt


In Philippe Garrell’s film, L’Enfant Secret (1982), there is an image of a child’s face, the secret child of the title, shot from an already filmed image as it passes through the gate on the editing table in slow motion. The light pulses as the child blinks, his eyes folding slowly over then open again, the double movement forming a rhythmic counterpoint that is captivating. The shot hovers on the brink of disappearing and yet its afterimage endures. The materiality of the image suggests the possibility of its disappearance, but, through the act of looking, we assert its presence. In the shot of the child’s face, it feels as if the eye of the camera is touching the face of the child, bestowing on the image an emotional clarity that is tremendously powerful.

The materiality of the archival images in United Red Army works to the same effect. Ever on the verge of collapsing into abstraction, their materiality performs the indeterminacy of the event they record. The images of the plane are compelling because they show us the only thing that can truly be said of the event. That a plane sat on the tarmac, at an airport with thick trees and white roofs beyond the broad concrete runway. That some men gathered in the control tower. That the area was cleared of other planes. And that someone filmed it. Stripped of all context but the wavering broadcast signal that courses across the screen, the images present a particular moment in time and space. Watching the plane and the landscape beyond the airstrip, we reach out from our own particular islands. Touching the face of the world.

  1. Ali Dur and McKenzie Wark, “New New Babylon,” October, no. 138 (2011): 37–56 []
Sarinah Masukor lives in Sydney and writes for Radio National, Metro and West Space Journal. Like Simryn Gill and Tsai Ming Liang, her father was born in Malaysia.