In 2015 the industrial group Laibach became the first Western band to ever play a concert in North Korea—a ludicrous state of affairs, and the strangest choice of band there could have been, given Laibach’s history of political provocation. The event is documented in the film Liberation Day (named for the fact that they played during North Korea’s annual celebration of liberation from Japanese invaders during World War II). Directed by Morten Traavik, without whom the event could not have happened, it is a funny, insightful film that takes the viewer into a side of North Korea not previously seen.
When their mini-tour was announced, it was the most high-profile outing for the band yet—the film actually begins with a hilarious clip from John Oliver’s TV show. I spoke with both Laibach and Traavik about Liberation Day and their North Korean experience.
Finding out that he would actually be filming Laibach in North Korea was “deeply satisfying and slightly unreal,” said Traavik. Once they had landed in the secretive country, there were fewer problems than one might expect, he added. “We just turned on the cameras and shot from the hip, largely unimpeded, throughout the week Laibach was in the country,” he said. “There were a couple of sensitive discussions the North Koreans didn’t want us to film, but mostly we did anyway. However, their secrecy was nothing compared to that of Laibach themselves. Catching a Laibach member off-guard is more difficult than interviewing the Loch Ness monster.”
The documentary does show a much more approachable side of the Slovenian group than has generally been seen in the past. For their part, the group found it an interesting experience, with some parallels to the early 1950s-60s era of Communism in their own country. However, “communism in Slovenia was quite a wild and decadent one compared to what we’ve seen in North Korea,” they noted. “The most surprising fact was that national state TV filmed the whole concert and showed it on TV next day. Also, that the official state newspaper of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea published a review of the concert on the front page the next day. This is how music and culture should be treated everywhere!”
However, Laibach added, the Slovenian Foreign Ministry actually banned any diplomats based in the region from attending the concert in Pyongyang.
The performance in the North Korean capital was a fairly straightforward Laibach concert, featuring a popular North Korean folk tune and songs from The Sound of Music, plus some Laibach originals and a few of their famous off-kilter covers.
Once the footage had made it out of North Korea, the real difficulties began, said Traavik. “it was no easy ride obtaining permissions from grumpy old directors to use snippets of their old Laibach videos, or negotiate royalty fees with Rodgers and Hammerstein,” he said. “Also, we had to re-edit after the final cut because the guitar player of Rammstein changed his mind about appearing in the film, [and] their lawyers [were] threatening us with a €250,000 fine and an extended stay in a German jail.” (Laibach and Rammstein have been friendly in the past but there is a long history of Laibach taking the piss out of their German copyists: “’They are Laibach for kids, we are Rammstein for adults”’ being a typical dismissal.)
Liberation Day focuses more on the events surrounding the concert, which is not featured in its entirety but will be an extra on the upcoming Blu-Ray release. Much of the humour comes from the interactions between the band and their North Korean hosts, such as a bit where they ask singer Milan to take off his helmet-like cloth cap because they think it has a Nazi-ish look.
Although they had to consult their North Korean partners about what would and would not be acceptable, Traavik is quick to note that there was no direct censorship. “It is safe to say that the Laibach concert would never even have been imaginable without my previous four years of building personal trust and professional relations through a series of ever more ambitious and expanding collaborative performance projects in partnership with their Committee for Cultural Relations,” he said. “At the end of the day, it all boils down to this: trust and personal chemistry. Even in a place as regulated as North Korea. And those qualities you simply cannot develop without patience and long-term people-to-people engagement.”
“North Korea is surrounded by so much hysteria, hyperbole, political face-saving and willful obfuscations from all sides, including their own,” Traavik stated. “Anybody claiming to be an authority on North Korean matters is either a fool or a liar, or both, so the biggest misconception is taking any information about North Korea at face value. The truth about a country and a culture – about any country and culture – is a jigsaw of tiny pieces that you need lots of time, sifting and unsuccessful attempts to fit together.”
For the band, it was an opportunity to reach a truly new audience. “We taught them that our kind of music also exists in the world and that life is life in North Korea as elsewhere,” they said.
Laibach has been involved with different media since their inception, including a range of film work that began with their appearance as extras in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. “This was in the early ’80s when we lived for a while in London and our friends from the band Last Few Days invited us to join them as extras,” the band said. “That was easy, because we were already serving in the Yugoslav army by then and were used to wearing uniforms. Money was good, food was regular and it was interesting to watch Kubrick at work. We also gave him our album which he accepted gratefully.” In the years since, their music has been used in several films, including Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and Iron Sky. Laibach are currently finishing the soundtrack for Iron Sky sequel The Coming Race.
Liberation Day will be released via iTunes on 17 July, and is currently screening at film festivals worldwide – see: http://www.liberationday.film.
Laibach has also just released their latest album, Also Sprach Zarathustra, featuring music originally composed for a theatrical piece in Slovenia. In addition, The Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid is currently hosting a retrospective of art from Laibach and the multimedia organisation it is a part of, Neue Slowensiche Kunst. Laibach Kunst 1980 + Neue Slowenische Kunst 1984 – 1992: From Kapital to Capital will run until 8 January 2018