A controversial experimental rock band visit North Korea to play cover versions of ‘The Sound Of Music’. It sounds somewhat ludicrous as a film synopsis - perhaps a slapstick comedy starring Steve Martin or Leslie Nielsen - but the best thing is, this is all real life, and it all happened.
Laibach are a ex-Yugoslavian cult band whose artistic endeavours have created contention for decades. Their unique stylings have seen people accuse them of fascism, as they push the envelope with their industrial, militant rock music. In their latest extreme endeavour, they travel to North Korea for the 70th anniversary celebrations of the country's liberation from Japanese rule. They’re serious about the songs they’re performing and the creativity that comes with it, and aren’t going into the situation with eyes closed. Yet with two days to get the show up and running, they’re confronted at every turn by hurdles, censorship and archaic technology. How far will they compromise their artistic endeavours to ensure the show will go on?
This is a unique, rare glimpse inside North Korea, and one that may surprise many people. The locals they encounter are, at first, seemingly normal and quite happy. Day-to-day life is quite pleasant, if not something of a time capsule. However, it’s when the band get into rehearsals and hoards of officials unexpectedly show up that things start getting strange - they’re confronted by people they’ve never met before and told they can’t sing this or do that. Laibach and their production team have worked for months on this project, and to be told at the eleventh hour drastic changes have to be made is somewhat heartbreaking. We see them having to compromise their intentions over and over and over again, and by the end you can practically feel the broken spirits of everyone involved.
It’s not just amazing what this team achieve on the surface - convincing the North Korean government to allow this extremely controversial act to perform at one of the country’s greatest celebrations - but also the fact that they have been allowed to document it. Access is almost entirely unrestricted; there are a few conversations cameras are denied access to, but we freely see the faces of the authorities, workers and members of the public. There is a lot more footage than you would expect, and it’s quite impressive what directors Morten Traavik and Uģis Olte have been allowed to get away with.
It’s not just amazing what this team achieve on the surface - convincing the North Korean government to allow this extremely controversial act to perform at one of the country’s greatest celebrations - but also that they have been allowed to document it.
Being a film on a band such as Laibach, the format is anything but conventional. It’s slated at the beginning as a “documentary musical”, an apt description of what’s to come. The opening titles with an electronic rendition of ‘The Sound Of Music’ are set to nuclear explosions and military propaganda clips like a music video. From here, the drama of the preparations are interspersed with musical numbers with pristine production values and aural immaculacy. The entire documentary is extremely well shot, a high-quality production from a small team with limited resources on the ground, with beautiful cinematography not just of the music but also everyday North Korean life. It’s all topped off with supplementary graphics by Valnoir, who oversees all of the band’s designs and accompanied them on the trip.
The band is quoted as saying, “All art is subject to political manipulation - except that which speaks the language of the same manipulation.” Despite their best intentions, it would seem that Laibach were not speaking the same language as the North Korean government; it’s quite inconceivable why they agreed to host the band in the first place. As the film quickly goes from quirky to absurd, it’s impossible not to be fascinated by the limitations enforced upon the performance and the restraints placed on these very liberal artists. ‘Liberation Day’ is a revelatory experience, a truly captivating documentary about a part of our world rarely seen, and the Westerners who tried to bring in a touch of nonconformity.