Through a practice that includes essays, film, and photography, Naeem Mohaiemen researches borders, wars, and belonging within Bangladesh’s two independence markers—1947 as East Pakistan, and 1971 as Bangladesh. These contested areas are his templates for a global history of postcolonial possibility and reversal. Within this context, his project The Young Man Was is a fragmentary history of the 1970s revolutionary left. Chapters in that project include the films United Red Army (2012), about the hijacking of Japan Airlines 472 by the Japanese Red Army in 1977, and that premiered at the 10th Sharjah Biennial; and Afsan’s Long Day (2014), involving anti-Maoist manhunts in 1974, that premiered at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The latest chapter, Last Man in Dhaka Central (2015), premieres at the Biennale di Venezia.
Last Man traces Peter Custers, a Dutch academic who left his PhD studies to document revolutionary left movements forming in Bangladesh after the country’s violent separation from Pakistan in 1971. In 1975, the nation was convulsed by two military coups and, finally, a leftist-inspired soldiers’ uprising. By December, this last mutiny was crushed and mass arrests of leftist activists began. Peter was accused of “antistate conspiracy” as leader of the Movement for Proletarian Unity—a group organizing landless peasants— and was arrested along with his comrades. After a year of campaigning for his release by the Dutch government, he was the only member released and deported.
Last Man pairs two temporalities in reverse sequence. In a series of newsreels and leaked memos, the film starts at the end of the narrative, with Peter’s release. In a parallel story through Peter’s off-screen voice, memories unspool over books and magazines in his Dutch home, far from the Bangladesh of 1975 or today. A second channel plays the text of a revolutionary manifesto that Peter wrote before his arrest. As we listen to his words, interrupted occasionally by questions from the director, our own questions begin to congeal. What were the globalist possibilities that inspired many to look to the Third World as the site for a decisive socialist victory? What allows utopian hope, against the weight of history and experience? Was Peter like the American journalist John Reed, who wrote his first-hand account of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, in the last free moments before the so called Stalinist Thermidor? What does it mean to be a survivor and a witness—the last man standing on the eve of collapse, surveying the wreckage of collective dreams today?