Last Man in Dhaka Central (The Young Man Was, Part III) (82’, 2015)
November 1975. The Summer of Tigers was a twilight moment for multiple Left possibilities. After the assassination of Salvador Allende, Bangladeshis worried about a similar fate. The end came much more abruptly; instead of a faceoff inside a presidential palace, soldiers surprised the guard regiment raising the national flag at dawn. A brutal massacre killed the Prime Minister and his whole family, ending the country’s first Socialist government. Three months later, two more coups followed, the last being a Maoist-inspired “soldiers’ mutiny”, which collapsed in the middle of betrayal and miscalculation. Caught up in this maelstrom was Peter Custers, a Dutch journalist who befriended the leader of the soldiers’ mutiny, and had formed his own underground group, Movement for Proletarian Unity.
Last Man in Dhaka Central unspools two stories in reversed sequences. In a series of newsreels and memos, we start at the end – with Peter’s release. In the parallel story being told by Peter, his memories unravel over books, magazines, and clippings in his Leiden home, far away from the Bangladesh of 1975 or today. Peter, like many European Leftists of his generation (especially post–Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man), believed that even if the alienated masses trapped inside modernity were numbed into obedience, the revolutionary spirit might still be found “outside” modernity – in the prisons and ghettos of the First World, or in the cities and villages of the Third. It was a search for the latter that led him to drop out of a Ph.D. program at Johns Hopkins and move to Asia in 1973. As he found out, though, there was never a complete outside: a numbed proletariat could also doom Leftist uprisings in the vaunted Third World, as Godard also hinted in La Chinoise (1967).
Last Man in Dhaka Central premiered at the 56th Venice Biennale, in All the World’s Futures curated by Okwui Enwezor. The film intended to begin a longer dialogue with Peter, but has now become an unintentional memorial: a few months after watching the film in Venice, Peter was making plans to attend the Lisbon festival premiere when he passed away unexpectedly. The film now speaks into a void: its last man has finally said goodbye.
The Young Man Was project examines the failures of radical, armed leftist movements of the 1970s. The protagonists often display misrecognition, ending up as an “accidental trojan horse” carrying tragic results to the countries in question (from Japanese hijackers commandeering Dhaka airport for “solidarity,” to migrant labor pipelines transformed into PLO “volunteers”). In spite of its failures, Mohaiemen’s reading of the potential of international left solidarity is still, always, one of hope. The first part (United Red Army, 2011) reconstructs the 1977 hijacking of Japan Airlines Flight 472 through a series of crisply polite negotiation tapes. The second film (Afsan’s Long Day, 2014) addresses the misrecognition of Marxist ideologies from the perspective of a young historian (Afsan Chowdhury, whose diary entry gives the series its name), slaloming between Bangladesh’s summer of tigers, and the German Autumn associated with the Rote Armee Fraktion. The third film (Last Man in Dhaka Central, 2015) traces, in reverse, the journey of Peter Custers, a Dutch journalist jailed in Bangladesh in 1975, accused of belonging to an underground armed Maoist group. A more recent short film, Abu Ammar is Coming (2016), digs into the illusions of a press photograph of “PLO fighters” taken by Chris Steele-Perkins for Magnum.
In the form of Peter Custers, who unfortunately passed away in 2015, many of the questions of The Young Man Was project take a personal form. What lies behind utopian hope, especially within the idea of socialism, against the weight of history and experience? What also of the men who survived those terrible times, unlike so many of their comrades, and now spend their waning days in solitary apartments, writing down memories? What was such a man then, and how does he remember himself today? Was he John Reed, recording the Russian Revolution, in the last free moment before the Thermidor? What does it mean to be a survivor and witness—the last man standing on the eve of another collapse, surveying the wreckage of the socialist dream in the middle of a horrific present that teeters on the cusp of the Anthropocene?