Put yourself for a moment, if you would, in the mind of a totalitarian dictator in charge of the most isolated, censored and oppressed country on Earth. You have a huge national celebration to organise and want to invite the first ever Western band to your region to play as part of the event. Who would you pick? U2 – maybe too political? Rolling Stones – too sexy? Ed Sheeran – too crap? Liam Gallagher – difficult to brainwash without a brain to work on? Well, how about Laibach, an ex-Yugoslav art-house project with controversial socio-political philosophies using Nazi symbology who encore with a Krautrock cover of The Sound of Music? That must tick all the boxes, right? Well, miraculously, that’s exactly what happened on Liberation Day in North Korea in 2015.
Of course, there is history here. Self-appointed manager and fan of Laibach, Morten Traavik – a trained theatre director – had worked in North Korea many times before on various art projects and gained trust within the super-paranoid Cultural Department. With this single channel of trust, he could have just have easily taken Half Man Half Biscuit or Cradle of Filth.
What is incredible about Liberation Day is that it shows the day to day workings within the DPRK. The organisation of the gig is an utter debacle largely due to no single person ever wanting to make a decision on their own. Even the smallest detail, from censoring a solitary word to coordinating the sourcing of keyboard stands, must be agreed by committee. Proactivity allows blame and no-one is looking to get blamed in North Korea. It is a mesmerising window into the daily life of normal North Korean people, as is witnessing the fascinating juxtaposition in place. On one hand, the general populous look very happy, much happier than seen on the streets of central London, New York or Paris. On the other, you have the almost religious devotion for the Supreme Leader; vast golden statues, portraits on every wall, titanic structures built for worship. It begs the question, is brainwashing acceptable if your people are happy? Where do you draw the line?
Although being the centrepiece, the concert itself starts to become a sideshow to the battles Traavik has with the increasingly fussy demands of the organisers, and it’s this that makes Liberation Day work. 100 minutes of rehearsals and stage-hands could become somewhat dull, whether in North Korea or North Shields, but concentrating on the minutiae gives a wonderful peek into such an alien culture. The snowballing wonder of how the audience is going to appreciate a singer with a rather iffy 1930s German hat growling the lyrics of Kim Jong-un’s favourite summer hit becomes almost unbearable towards the finale.
There are wonderful moments. When the band first arrive in Pyongyang, a formal dinner is arranged which beings with a speech by the Director of Cultural Commissions. He stands and launches into a five minute attack on the band, describing them as an absolute disgrace and demanding they should have never been allowed into the country, then sits down and begins his starter.
On the road music documentaries are a hit and miss affair, mainly due to the reliance on unpredictable problems which make good cinema. Liberation Day never skips a beat however. Imagine George Orwell directing Spinal Tap and you’re somewhere close to the mark.
Dir: Ugis Olte, Morten Traavik
Scr: Morten Traavik (story)
Cast: Morten Traavik, Boris Benko, Milan Fras, Tomaz Cubej, Janez Gabric
Prd: Uldis Cekulis, Miha Cernec, Morten Traavik
Sound: Artis Dukalskis
Run Time: 100 Minutes