Review: Liberation Day

There are actually too many intriguing premises for this spiky documentary directed by two Scandinavians. The overall premise is compelling enough: a Slovenian art-rock band becomes the first foreign pop outfit to play a concert in Pyongyang that’s approved by the government. But even beyond that enticing possibility there are other questions that could very well form the basis of their own documentaries. The band, Laibach, for instance, is famous in Europe for being provocateurs in every conceivable way. They formed when Slovenia was still part of Yugoslavia and were an active thorn in the side of the government with their abrasive, industrial, strident, but no less melodic pop songs, many of which were ironic standards. For instance, they’ve played concerts that consisted of nothing but songs from The Sound of Music. They also appropriate Nazi imagery as a means of keeping everyone who sees them on their toes, because despite the martial frippery they seem opposed to both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, as suspicious of communist ideals as they are of capitalist truisms.

Then there’s the whole concept of their playing in North Korea, whose officials don’t understand irony and certainly don’t trust Laibach to follow orders. Which brings us to our third and, in a sense, most telling premise: Laibach’s appearance is brokered by a Norwegian, Morten Traavik, who also happens to be one of the film’s directors, for reasons that seem subversively dangerous, or, at least, dangerous to his own well-being. Traavik is a frequent visitor to the Hermit Kingdom, where he promotes cultural exchange programs, and so has managed to cultivate a relationship with the powers that be despite that fact that every indication given by the film says he’s a prickly, difficult customer. But that may be Traavik playing up to the camera for the sake of boosting the film’s entertainment value, which is already considerable. In any case, Traavik manages to convince officials who want nothing to do with Laibach to allow them to perform, under strict conditions, however.

What’s truly refreshing about Liberation Day is the way Traavik spins the negotiations, rehearsals, and the concert itself into a kind of Herzogian absurdist treatise on the limits of cultural control. One of the ways Laibach convinced the authorities to allow them to perform is to say they will play “We Will Go to Mount Paektu,” a North Korean folk song that is practically a national anthem. They do it in their stentorian style and you can tell by the looks on the officials’ faces that they don’t know if this was a really good idea in the first place. Most documentaries about North Korea tread a fine line between exploitation and enlightenment because of the limits the state puts on recording and talking to citizens. There’s always a feeling that you’re not getting the real deal. Liberation Day makes no such promises in the first place—it’s basically about whether or not Laibach is a serious political entity of a bunch of con artists—and is thus a unique work of art. Calling it a documentary, in fact, seems insufficient.

In English. Now playing in Tokyo at Theater Image Forum in Aoyama (03-5766-0114).

Liberation Day home page in Japanese.

photo (c) VFS Films/Traavik. Info 2016

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