Talk to Me

Naeem Mohaiemen's new film rewinds to the 1977 hijack of Japan Airlines flight 472 in Dhaka, and one man's attempt to defuse the desperados

Text by Shumon Basar

Tank _vol 7issue 238

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

In the overpopulated universe of large-scale exhibitions, the Sharjah Biennial is unique in its concerted commitment to help artists produce new works. One of the most striking co-commissions (with Creative Capital) in this year’s edition was a 68-minute documentary-film montage by Dhaka/New York-based writer and artist Naeem Mohaiemen. Entitled The Young Man Was…: Part 1, United Red Army, it is about the September 28, 1977 hijack of a Japan Airlines flight to Dhaka by the Japanese Red Army (JRA), a far-left militia founded in 1971 by Fusako Shigenobu. Its members were formerly part of the Japanese Communist League Red Army Faction, who had established a base in Syrian-controlled areas of Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley under the protection of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The JRA was building itself up overseas, eventually intending to return to Japan to lead an armed uprising against the government and monarchy.

Mohaiemen tracked down the recording of the radio conversation between the on-board JRA representative (codename: “Danke”) and the Bangladeshi hostage negotiator, A. G. Mahmud, and juxtaposed the crackly voices of these two strangers hurled into a forced, awkward intimacy with contemporaneous news and television footage, as well as Mohaiemen’s own deadpan narration. Perhaps because English was a second language to both men, the tone with which they started their discussion was peculiarly polite, until the accord between ransom and reason reached breaking point.

22 days in 1977: a timeline

September 28: Japanese Red Army hijacks JAL 472 to Dhaka

October 2: Military coup at Dhaka airport while hijack continues

October 3: $6m ransom is handed to hijackers and JAL 472 flies with ransom to Algiers

October 13: Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine hijacks LH 181 to Mogadishu

October 18: GSG-9 storms hijacked plane on Mogadishu runway

October 18: Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, Jan-Carl Raspe commit suicide in Stammheim prison

October 19: The Red Army Faction executes Hanns-Martin Schleyer

Timeline provided by the artist at Sharjah Biennial X

Shumon Basar You were eight when the JAL472 hijacking was tracked live on television. What are your memories of it?
Naeem Mohaiemen Very odd memories, ones that only acquire significance in retrospect. We were in Chittagong [Bangladesh], and I was addicted to a weekly TV serial Zoo Gang. What I remember very clearly, with childlike angst, is that the live broadcast of the hijack pushed all regular television programming off air. On the second night, Zoo Gang began and then was interrupted with, “And now back to the control tower.” Things were extremely crude: a stationary camera providing a medium shot of the airport tower, and absolutely nothing happening. I sat in front of the TV for hours, wishing it would end. This was the country’s first continuous, live broadcast; comparable to the way the 1972 Munich Olympics crisis commandeered a global TV audience. When I told this story to a friend who is about 10 years older, he recollected how Mighty Mouse was cancelled because of the Kennedy assassination.

SB Which came first? The idea to make a film about this event, or discovering the tape recording between Mahmud and Danke?
NM I had been thinking of doing work about the hijack for several years. But I couldn’t solve the visual puzzle, the through-line for telling the story without going into traditional “talking head” mode. When I discovered that Mahmud had the tape recordings, and managed to get a copy for myself, I waited seven days before I finally started listening to them. I was paralysed by some inexplicable superstition. An expectation of white noise…

SB One of my favourite aspects of your film is the fact that it visualises, in faithful text, the words we hear. Green for the Japanese Danke and red for the Bangladeshi Mahmud. They sputter out like demented subtitles. Why did you decide to turn the words into images? How much of it has to do with the strange, second-languageness of English in this international domain?
NM Mahmud had 22 tapes, totalling about 30 hours, but the negotiations lasted over 105 hours. So a lot of the action is missing, and many things must have happened in the gaps. When I kept listening to the tapes, the incredibly slow, deliberate pace of the words fascinated me. I thought of the large text on screen as a way for myself to imagine those single, broken words unfolding over long gaps. If you listen closely, you’ll notice that Danke’s English gets better as time progresses, except at the end, when he’s exhausted. Obviously both men are speaking in their second language, but Mahmud is more comfortable, which confounds the negotiation dynamic – there is a pivotal moment when he scolds Danke. That slow, looping path of decoded speech suggested words popping up on the screen.

SB At one point, Danke tells Mahmud that they landed in Dhaka because the JRA felt there would be innate support for their activities from the Bangladeshi government and its people. What made them think this?
NM It was based on this 1970s ethos that “Muslim nations” would be sympathetic to the JRA global revolution project. And within this there was some hidden gradation, because the Asian countries – Bangladesh and Pakistan – were safe enough for conducting hostage negotiations, but the ultimate destination had to be an Arab nation – Algeria, in this case. The choice of Bangladesh is a seminally off-kilter moment. It illustrates the way that the Third World solidarity project was riven with contradictions and marriages of convenience. Bangladesh had only become “Islamic” two years earlier, after the military coup on August 15, 1975, when the nation’s founder Sheikh Mujib was killed and General Zia took power. It’s significant how global politics played out: Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were the first two countries to recognise the new government, which proclaimed itself an “Islamic Republic” on the day of the assassination. By 1977, there had been two more coups, including a failed “soldier’s mutiny”. It was a shaky military government with internal tensions, and the JRA stepped into this unwieldy template with their simplistic vision of Bangladesh as a friendly country.

SB In a way, this was the apogee of terrorist hijackings, just as air flight was becoming increasingly democratised the world over. The JRA had already carried out two prior operations, in 1970 and 1973. You suggest, though, that 1977 was the endgame for a certain international stance regarding the protocols of negotiating and meeting hijackers’ demands.
NM Yes. The JAL472 takeover got incredible results: six of its members were released and the hijackers were paid $6 million in ransom – with little resistance from the authorities. This incident was followed by a global consensus that governments should not give in to demands. In fact, the Japanese government established a Special Assault Team in the aftermath of this incident. The Lufthansa hijack by the PFLP, only two weeks later, had a very different fate, ending with German GSG 9 commandos storming the plane in Mogadishu. Hanns-Martin Schleyer’s fate was also sealed by the German government’s refusal to negotiate.

Back to JAL472, Mahmud thought there were commandos hidden on the Japanese flight that arrived carrying the ransom, which is why he had that plane parked on the far end of the tarmac from the hijacked plane. Who knows – there may have been other scenarios waiting to unfold.

SB On October 2, there was a military coup at Dhaka airport. How did these two extreme events segue with each other?
NM There is a bizarre moment of Japanese understatement when Danke says to Mahmud“I understand you have some internal problems.” Unintentionally diplomatic verbiage, used to describe an event that went on to cast a long shadow over Bangladesh. In total, General Zia survived 21 coup attempts, and the 22nd one killed him in Chittagong in 1981. The airport coup attempt was an early one, and one of the most traumatic, unfolding against the backdrop of the hijack. It’s clear the mutinous Bangladeshi soldiers tried to take advantage of everyone’s attention being on the hijack tarmac. Unintended consequences.

SB To what extent has the ultra-left left a residue in Bangladeshi politics? Or were they eclipsed by, say, Islamicist movements? Or do you think there has been collusion between the two?
NM This is a large subject, one that I have been researching for the last few years. The ultra-left in Bangladesh was idealistic and misguided, disastrous for the country in the long run. I say this as someone whose sympathies are with the left; but it is impossible to ignore the grim reality that unfolded. Looking closely at the interplay between various left factions, especially from 1972-1975, led me to this idea that leftist violence often acts as an accidental Trojan horse for right-wing forces. It’s what I hope to explore in future chapters of this project. §

  • Talk to Me