Liberation Day: A self-fulfilling promise
by Vladan Petkovic
- Norwegian artist Morten Traavik directs not only this documentary about Laibach in North Korea, but also the group’s whole Pyongyang show
Norwegian artist and theatre director Morten Traavik is known for his provocative artistic actions that always have a strong political side to them. His collaborations with North Korean artists have caused uproar in Norwegian society, but he is the authorised cultural affairs liaison for that country, so he was the right – and maybe the only – person who could take the cult Slovenian band Laibach for the first performance ever by a popular Western band in the totalitarian state. Traavik went to direct both the Pyongyang show and, together with Latvian director and editor Uģis Olte, the documentary Liberation Day, which chronicles the event. Cineuropa caught the film at the Trieste Film Festival, after it premiered at the IDFA.
Following a brief introduction to the background, aesthetics and political message of Laibach, which is often simplifyingly and stupidly labelled as “fascist” in the Western media, the film takes us along with the band and their technical support crew to Pyongyang. They are received with honours, and preparations for the gig commence. Laibach's idea is to play their arrangements of songs from The Sound of Music – a rare Western film allowed and loved in the country.
While the North Koreans initially seem eager to get Laibach what they need, soon it transpires that many aspects of the planned show are problematic – the thunderous visuals, parts of the iconography (especially contentious is the band leader Milan Fras' trademark cap), and the fact that the Korean lyrics they decided to use in “Life Is Life” instead of the original German ones are in the Southern dialect, rarely heard in the North. Add to that the level of technology they have in Pyongyang and the technology that Laibach needs for their shows, and you have a perfect set-up for an adventurously political documentary film.
Traavik is the main figure here, as he navigates the peculiarities of North Korean society via the "helpers" and "overseers" (sometimes there are up to 30 men hanging around the rehearsals, not doing anything in particular) assigned to organise the show with the band. In parallel, the film includes cocky interviews with the band’s ideologist, Ivan Jani Novak, ever the provoker, who reminds us that both the band and North Korea are mistakenly branded as fascist, and since they are both misunderstood, they make a perfect match.
Laibach in North Korea? A self-fulfilling promise. Both of these entities carry a powerful political message through a very similar language, but to completely different ends. While North Korea's use of symbols and propaganda is simple and direct, Laibach has, throughout its career, been turning them upside down in order to subvert ideas of totalitarian societies. So what does this documentary about a concert by the first Western rock group in Pyongyang bring us? An immensely engaging, smoothly edited (with clear music-video influences) and highly polished account of an event that became historical simply due to the fact that it took place.