Naeem Mohaiemen


United Red Army

Film/ 70 mins/ 2011

September 1977. The Japanese man speaks in halting English; the Bangladeshi negotiator with the clipped confidence of an army officer. A colour code suggests order in the exchange: green, red, and the occasional white. But underneath the schema of a dark screen—subtitle sans image—an unravelling awaits.

The Japanese Red Army had attached to the Palestinian cause, and through that to an idea of global pan-Arabism. But the high-value “Jewish” hostage turned out to be an Armenian Christian banker from California. Another passenger, a Democratic Party Congressman on his honeymoon, negotiated a call to the White House, only to be routed to Jimmy Carter’s answering service.

The hostage terrain was not a fully realized “Islamic Republic” as the hijackers thought, but rather a turbulent new country ricocheting between polarities and imploding in the process. Two years earlier, the country had gone through a trio of military coups–decimating, in turn, the country’s founding Prime Minister and family (August 15, 1975), a group of army officers (November 3, 1975), and finally, a Leftist cell within the army (November 7, 1975).

Instead of being the willing and enthusiastic platform for the Japanese Red Army’s fantasy of “Third World revolution,” the actual Third World hit back in unexpected ways, turning the hijackers into hapless witnesses. The lead negotiator, codename “Dankesu”, says with baffled understatement and in halting English: “I understand you have some internal problems.”

In West Space journal, art critic Sarinah Masukor described the film’s structure as “ever on the verge of collapsing into abstraction, their materiality performs the indeterminacy of the event they record”.

The film is in the collection of the Tate Modern in London and the Kiran Nadar Museum in Delhi.