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Laibach - Liberation Day
Liberation DayPhotography Tor Jørund F Pedersen / Courtesy of Dogwoof

Following the first western band to play in North Korea

Liberation Day follows avant-garde band Laibach’s controversial 2015 concert in the secretive state – but is the documentary an insight into the regime, or just propaganda?

Liberation Day tells the story of Laibach, the first western band to be welcomed into North Korea. Throughout their 37-year career, not-unfounded controversies have become as much a part of the five-piece industrial rock group’s brand as their totalitarian aesthetics and the not-unlike-fascist uniforms (designed to disrupt as much as anger) that they wear on stage.

Raised in the former Yugoslavia, Laibach are a band of contradictions who operate under the malleable guise of satire. They’re seen as a symbol of both the far-right and the far-left, as both parodists of authoritarian regimes and propagandists for them. They have been called “enemies of the people” by the journalist Jure Pengov, yet Slovenian political theorist Slavoj Žižek described Laibach’s 2015 performance in North Korea as “the most fascinating cultural, ideological and political event of the 21st century.” Directed by filmmaker Morton Traavik, Liberation Day follows the band as they explore North Korea through a camera lens.

Morton’s work with the North Korean Ministry of Culture stretches back nearly a decade. In 2013, North Korea’s Got Talent came to the communist state under Traavik’s guidance, and in the same year he orchestrated a cultural exchange between students from North Korea and his native Norway. But outside of North Korea, Traavik has been accused of adopting unethical practices and morally devoid shock tactics in the name of self-promotion. In 2007, he spearheaded Angola’s ‘Miss Landmine’ competition, a pageant show for amputee women injured by unexploded landmines left dormant after 20 years of civil war. In 2009 the competition planned to travel to Cambodia under Traavik’s watch before the government cancelled the event which would, as they stated at the time, “damage the dignity and honour of our disabled, especially women” and "make a mockery of Cambodia's landmine victims.” The winner was to receive a crown, and a custom-made prosthetic limb. “Exploitation, or bold publicity for the victims?” asked The Guardian’s south east Asia correspondent Ian MacKinnon, a quote that Traavik has hosted on his own website.

Traavik’s continued working relationship with the North Korean government throws up questions in the film that are impossible to ignore. Is what’s being depicted in Liberation Day a true representation of life in North Korea? Am I unsuspectingly viewing a form of North Korean propaganda? Or have those outside of the secretive state been led to believe that no form of everyday life could exist there? Whatever thoughts you leave with, Liberation Day offers a twist on the textbook brand of North Korea voyeurism that we’ve seen on our screen since the country began allowing western journalists across their borders from the mid-2000s.

With the film exclusively released through iTunes earlier this week (July 17), we spoke with both Laibach (with a spokesperson talking on behalf of the entire band) and the film’s director Morton Traavik.

There have been quite a few documentaries over the past few years that have come out about North Korea as a country, but you don’t see this story that often. Am I right in saying this is not your first musical collaboration with North Korea and the Ministry of Cultural Relations? How did that relationship begin?

Morton Traavik: If you have a little bit of a thrill-seeker in you, then North Korea is a destination you would want to visit. I had the chance to go there as part of a very eccentric tour group around 2008, run by a guy who is semi-notorious for posing as some sort of official gatekeeper to North Korea who runs something called the Korean Friendship Association. Back then, I didn’t have a plan to do anything artistic, but having already worked for some years on artistic and social projects in quite challenging countries, I had certain experiences in working with people in power: bureaucrats, servants of the system, and people who are not primarily cultural workers, which is a gift in somewhere like North Korea.

Laibach: North Korea can easily fulfill your expectations, but it can also give you much more that – it is a completely different world from anything you can imagine from a European perspective. Reality in North Korea is basically surreal. It certainly gives you more than western media describes.

In your opinion, why do you think you were chosen to be the first western band allowed to perform in North Korea?

Laibach: It is difficult to say why we were the first. Maybe they saw Laibach as the North Korean equivalent within western popular culture. Or, maybe we were just lucky. They certainly trusted Morten, who already had some cultural exchange with North Korea and had built a strong bond of trust with the authorities in Pyongyang. When they finally realised what Laibach is, it was too late – we were already there.

“When they finally realised what Laibach is, it was too late – we were already there” – Laibach

Curating your performance in North Korea looked like a long and complicated process with a lot of edits, changes, and censoring required to make the performance suitable for the North Korean audience. With that in mind, do you feel the audience received a true Laibach performance?

Laibach: Of course they did. This was one of the most Laibachian concerts ever. Couldn’t be better. By not being allowed to enjoy – even if they maybe did – North Koreans were the perfect Laibach audience.

Following on from that question, in the documentary we see your performance is very restricted/censored. But how much do we see of that in the documentary? Do you think the documentary is a true depiction of your time in North Korea?

Laibach: It is very true and objective. There was a censorship, but Laibach cannot really be censored. Censors were only doing their job and they took out some completely unimportant details. In fact, the concert itself was even better without them.

Morton, here in the UK or across the globe even, we only see one side to the country. There’s bound to be normality there, but is it a different form of normality? Or a normality that would still be abnormal to us?

Morton Traavik: Much of the media narrative surrounding North Korea is that it’s another planet – that it’s bizarre, strange, and mystifying – but in the film we cross-cut images from the marches with scenes from rock concerts and the energy they have. What we are trying to suggest is that maybe the feeling and the energy of a Michael Jackson or Justin Bieber fan going bananas at a concert is no different to a North Korean doing the same at the sight of Kim Jong-un on a platform.

But although you could argue Michael Jackson or Justin Bieber are idolised in the same way, they’re a pop cultural reference, not a state-enforced symbol that is tied to say, militarisation.

Morton Traavik: Of course there are many parameters of that comparison which is not warranted, but on a purely emotional level, on an all-human need and urge to worship and to boost yourself for a while, to idolise, that is no way unique to North Korea. But I would say there are two opposed images of the country that are projected to us. There’s the North Korean state propaganda version, which to us is beyond parody, but then you have our main narrative, which is that it’s the worst place on Earth. Between those two extremes there is a huge grey area, and that’s where I dwell.

“The energy of a Michael Jackson or Justin Bieber fan going bananas at a concert is no different to a North Korean doing the same at the sight of Kim Jong-un on a platform” – Morton Traavik, Liberation Day director

In the documentary you investigate the grey area, but you don’t focus so much on the regime or its totalitarianism. Was there a moral choice you had to make before filming on how the country should be portrayed, and was that a difficult choice to make?

Morton Traavik: The artistic choice came first, definitely. We showed what happened as it happened, and it’s clear from the response that people trust that this is an authentic story. I would argue that we are not trying to hide or to underplay the problems and the challenges in North Korea, but unless you think that every documentary about a country that has skeletons in the human rights closet should address human rights, then I don’t see any reason why we should address it directly, because our movie is not about that.

I’m quite unsure what to believe, to be honest. You’ve had this long-running, near ten-year relationship with the country, and presumably you’ll be involved in more projects there in the future. So because of that, do you think viewers who watch this will wonder whether this movie is a form of propaganda?

Morton Traavik: I wouldn’t say I was worried about it. I’m used to being criticised, so I’m now hardened in battle. Certain critics think that I’m just a tool of the North Korean government – quite interestingly enough, those who are most critical are those who have never cared to see my films. But we’ve all been surprised at how little criticism there has been towards this film.

However you look at it, you can’t really use a Laibach concert as a form propaganda for the North Korean regime. I usually say to people in this context that any regime, any system that can benefit from a Laibach concert, deserves to benefit from it.

In what way?

Morton Traavik: If your system is such that you can use a Laibach concert as a form of propaganda, then your regime is probably pretty cool, and you deserve that propaganda…

…well, it is a form of propaganda to let a western band into a North Korea that’s famously anti-western.

Morton Traavik: It would have been much more easy to bring in something more generic than Laibach, because Laibach have the luggage that they have and you never know where you have them.

Arguably, someone more generic may be more against the regime as they generally greater represent ‘the west’ and are against what we perceive North Korea to be?

Morton Traavik: If you ask me, over the past few years Laibach have become more explicitly political, which I think is a bit sad.

“I’m used to being criticised, so I’m now hardened in battle. Certain critics think that I’m just a tool of the North Korean government” – Morton Traavik, Liberation Day director

There’s also a line in the film from Ivan Novak that says, in reference to North Korea, ‘I’ve seen communism at work and I have to say, I wouldn’t say it’s the best but it’s the most successful.’ That sticks out to me. It seems a little naive.

Morton Traavik: Well, he’s not saying that communism is good, per se, but I totally agree, that’s definitely something to be argued with. Laibach, with their Yugoslavian background, grew into being while the country still existed. They have a great nostalgia for Yugoslavia. Obviously when the country fell apart it became a different matter, but that is often overlooked with Laibach. They were a dissonance in Yugoslavia, they pranked and trolled and subverted the public life a lot, but at the same time, they celebrated it.

This ambiguity is one of the very reasons why I’ve always been so inspired by their strategy – to be in it, but not to be of it. That outlook made Laibach equipped to visit a place like North Korea without being too afraid of it. There were, after all, enough familiar elements compared to their upbringing that they would not have to go around being uptight all the time, which far too many western people do when they visit not only North Korea, but Russia and anywhere that is remotely authoritarian. That colours a lot of your judgements because some things are correct, but some will be coloured by this constant alertness or anxiety.

I agree people wouldn’t go to Russia because they feel it’s this completely totalitarian society, but I think that anxiety is not without its reasons.

Morton Traavik: Absolutely not. I’ve always been very clear to everybody, including the North Koreans, that I don’t support their political system. I’m not a follower of any Kim, I only represent myself. I can also acknowledge that there are certain sides to a place like North Korea that are oppressive. People being conditioned certainly, but not brainwashed. People are nice to each other because they want to be nice to each other.

But in respects to North Korea, in the film Ivan says that ‘people are so to say brainwashed, basically…’

Morton Traavik: And that’s also a point. You can’t really trust many second-hand experiences of the country, and that has always been my strategy. I can only share my personal experiences in working the way I have done, and working closely with people that I have over a time. Then I just have to hope that most people will trust the way I relay those experiences. What I want to do is offer a two way interaction (with the film). We challenge the global view of North Korea, but we also challenge the people who see the documentary. Far too often cultural exchange is promoting our own values under the guise of equality. It’s not really an exchange, but a real exchange is that you have to be prepared to change yourself as well. That’s the constant challenge.

Laibach, do you subscribe to the notion that a musician performing in a country is an indirect support of that country’s government? For example, Radiohead found recent controversy over their scheduled performance in Israel and were urged to cancel to it. 

Laibach: We performed in Israel recently and we were urged to cancel the performance as well. If we have to follow that rule – what country is ethical enough to perform in? Where is the line? Israel is heavily supported by the States and by many other countries. Should we cancel our shows in all those countries as well? If Laibach is really the best possible support to the North Korean government, than we can only say: ‘Hail to North Korea, we are all yours!’ And why not?

Liberation Day is available on iTunes