'Liberation Day' Directors on Documenting the First Foreign Band's Performance in North Korea

Laibach - Getty - H 2017

At the Jeonju film festival, Morten Traavik and Ugis Olte talked about the doc that recounts the bizarre moment Slovenian band Laibach played Pyongyang in 2015, a concert that stunned the world.

In August 2015, international media watched in amazement as North Korea invited its first foreign rock band to help the country celebrate the 70th anniversary of its liberation from Japanese rule. The band in question was the controversial Slovenian art rock act called Laibach that had been accused of everything from being "evil Neo-Nazis" to flat-out mocking fascism.

The bizarre and seemingly random choice of Laibach, as well as the jarring performance, became a source of great amusement and confusion on social media at the time and fodder for television comedians like Last Week Tonight host John Oliver. 

Filmmakers Morten Traavik, a Norwegian who has frequented the reclusive state over two dozen times, and Ugis Ulte, a Latvian director making a name for himself with documentaries, capture the moment in the documentary Liberation Day. The two Europeans met South Korean audiences Tuesday, following Monday's Asian premiere of Liberation Day during the 18th Jeonju International Film Festival. The filmmakers spoke about how the project began, the inspiring message of the film's subject matter, the ex-Yugoslavian cult band Laibach, and the differences — and unifying similarities — that make North Korea not as alien as it seems.

The following are excerpts from the Q&A session with South Korean audiences.

How did you start making the film, and was it scary in any way to do it?

Traavik: [It took a long time, visiting North Korea more than 20 times] for them to trust me. And it was because of this trust I was able to bring in a band like Laibach, which is quite new and scary to them. Laibach was invited simply because I asked the North Koreans to invite them. So that is where that started.

I think a big message is how important it is to have a personal relationship with the people you work with, a relationship of trust. And to have trust you need to treat people as your equal, not as your [inferiors] or your [superiors].

Olte: From my perspective, from not being involved in producing the concert itself, this was a huge lesson about how important it is to wish to communicate with something that is strange or alien to you, to step over this threshold and start to communicate.

Traavik: There is an important detail, which I wasn't aware about until the premiere, which is about the subtitling in the South Korean dialect. When Westerners talk among ourselves the [South Korean subtitles] use informal, colloquial speech in the subtitling. But when we are talking to North Korean friends it is on a respective. [This seems to be misleading.]

Most South Koreans do not have the opportunity to visit North Korea. What are the differences you have observed between North and South Koreas?

Olte: Laibach performed in Jeonju after the premiere on Monday. [Using] a metaphor of solar systems, North Koreans are like on the outer edge of the solar system where everything is cool and orderly, where people don't show their emotions even if maybe they feel them. Yesterday was like being on Venus. There were immediately head banging and fist bumping from the second the concert started. It was really, really amazing to see this contrast. I was anxious to see how [South Koreans would react to] this big North Korean hit song ["Mt. Paekdu"], and I'd have to say that a Korean mega-hit is a Korean mega-hit no matter which side of the fence you're on. People really dug it, like really dug it, singing along from the first chorus.

Traavik: As someone who has been to North Korea about 20 times, I think — I will be going back in one month and they know I am showing the film here — there are many very immediate differences that you see. The people here [in South Korea] are better dressed, well fed; you see much taller people and chubbier people here than in the North. And of course, this is a much more, in all kinds of ways, a freer society than the North.

On the other hand, to me, dealing with people, it's very, very clear that you [North and South Koreans] are the same people. It's the same temperament, the same culture. I feel very strongly that there is generally not a big difference in the feeling of the people. The only thing you should work a little bit on here is the quality of the soju. Because, I have to say, the Northern soju is both stronger and a little bit better (laughs).

[North and South Koreans both] feel very strongly about things, and I like that. At the same time, in my impression, you are extremely disciplined in the same way, in the same sense of community, the same sense of working together. So this is a paradox, this is one of the things that make you so fascinating as a people.

South Korea recently experienced a government blacklisting scandal against artists. What are your thoughts on government censorships?

Traavik: There is a German band that is threatening to sue us … I think one of things we are trying to say with our film is that North Korea is another country, but it is not another planet. The censorship they have in North Korea, we have here, too. It's just different, and on another level, but the core is the same.

Scandinavian countries are supposedly some of the freest on Earth. My projects have been debated in the Norwegian parliament. [Three Norwegian ministries — foreign affairs, defense and culture — have] had on few different occasions [summoned me] because of my project. Nobody likes being questioned — the state, the authorities, they don't like it. You don't like it, I don't like it when people question our views. So, of course I'm totally opposed to a blacklist, but at the same time, I would take it as a compliment if well, my projects, or anybody else's projects, are debated in Parliament or put on a blacklist, because that probably means you are asking some interesting questions.

Your film wanted me to get and march in unison with the band. It's only at rock concerts or football games when you can have the chance to chant together with a crowd. Would you be interested in having the audience join Laibach?

Olte: Sometimes your inner marching is enough. That's what Laibach does. It just resonates in some small part of the soul, maybe it can move the whole soul, but the thing is that it addresses some point that everybody has. Everybody likes to march. After this trip to North Korea I started to observe many, many features in my own Latvian society that really did the same: We are good choir singers, we also enjoy uniforms sometimes, we are also waiting for our higher authorities to solve all our problems instead of [doing it] ourselves. So we are all the same, basically.

Traavik: Yes. So just join me.

You said in the film that you are interested more in the truth than peace, per se, even if it brings about a little bit of chaos. What are some truths you observed in North Korea?

I'm certainly not a follower of 'juche' or the North Korean system, and I'm always very careful to point this out to North Koreans as well. I'm not representative of anyone apart from myself and the search for truth. Also, as an interesting side fact …, when I'm in Oslo I am regularly having dinners with the South Korean embassy because … they want to stay updated with what's happening in the North. This, I'm also telling the North. So in my small way I am kind of a channel. And this is only possible because I do not represent anyone.

Meanwhile, the 18th Jeonju Film Festival continues through May 6, featuring 229 films from 58 countries.