"The Young Man Was". Killers Talking to Killers

By Robert K. Stephen on May 15, 2012

This Toronto HOT DOCS 2012 Festival documentary is a bit out of the ordinary. The Festival ended on the 6th of May but the impact and memory of some movies will linger. "The Young Man Was" is so out of the ordinary you start wondering if there is something wrong with it as you just see differing colour dialogue text on the screen for what seems a very long time and when you see footage of the actual hijacking it is in a cloudy grey and white.Just take a look at the picture! There are two conclusions to be drawn from the documentary. One is that that killers are talking with killers. The other is that terrorism is rarely successful.

The film documents the hijacking of a September 28, 1977 Japan Airlines flight from Paris to Tokyo hijacked by The Japanese Red Army  and forced to land in Dhaka, Bangladesh with 156 passengers on board. The reason given for the hijacking by the JRA was the detention and killing by torture of comrade Hidaka by the regime of Jordan. The JRA was a particularly nasty faction we are told by narrator and director Naeem Mohaiemen as it killed some 14 of its members for “impurities” labelling their deaths as “death by defeatism”. The thought was that if they survived the torture of the fellow comrades it would show their purity. Of course if you have been around long enough you know the murderous ways of the FLQ, Bader Meinhof Gang, Italian Red Army Faction, PLO etc.

Director Mohaiemen tells us he was very upset that the hijacking coverage pre-empted “The Zoo Gang” which was his favourite television show. Clips of this rather silly show are interspersed in the film. The Zoo Gang clips are so badly acted the exchange between the JRA gang on the plane and the Bengali gang in the Dhaka Airport control tower appears very realistic and chillingly deadly. The JRA spokesman on the plane is called Danke, and in a rather distinct Japanese way is often very formal but polite. The Bengali negotiator A.G. Mahmud is a senior air forceofficer and the third most powerful person in the military regime. Bangladesh is at this time a military dictatorship. Mahmud’s voice is precise and quasi-hypnofying. The exchanges between Danke and Mahmud are riveting.Communication and negotiation runs as smoothly and calmly as one could ever possibly expect in this situation where Danke continually threatens to execute passengers one by one. When there are no visuals, as often happens in the film, your imagination is left only to construct the picture that might be on the screen. The green text is that of Mahmud, the red that of JRA’s Danke and the white text is that of the Bengali negotiating team in the airport control tower unheard by the JRA. To relieve the tension extremely poor quality Bengali black and white footage covers the plane and those in the airport control tower. Occasionally we see US and Japanese media coverage clips. Certain passengers are released.

Negotiations proceed civilly until a JAL plane arrives from Japan with JRA colleagues and cash demanded by the JRA hijackers. Tensions rise. The voices of Danke and Mahmudbecome agitated, angry and distorted through exhaustion. Each side appears to be bluffing the other side. There is confusion and a long silence from Danke. The plane attempts to takeoff but is blocked by the Bengalis. Strange activity is seen by the plane and Mahmud says to Danke if I tell you these people are not mine you can kill them. This is not making sense? What is happening here? The plane eventually takes off and lands in Algiers. At the conclusion of the film we receive via the screen of the capture of all the hijackers over the next 20 years. All seems to end relatively well until Director Mohaiemen narration explains us that during the 80 hour hijacking event there was an attempted coup at and around the Dhaka Airport. 11 of the plotters were killed and hundreds executed secretly by the Bengali military dictatorship that was negotiating with the JRA.This is why Mahmud says to the JRA that they may kill those people Mahmud informs them are not his. Quite rightly said, this film is about killers talking to killers.

Warning. This film becomes addictive. May increase terror and anxiety upon second watch.


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