'Liberation Day': Film Review

Courtesy of Joerund F. Pedersen
Truly stranger than fiction.
10/18/2017

Ugis Olte and Morten Travavik's documentary chronicles the preparations for a concert in North Korea by the Slovenian rock band Laibach.

Ugis Olte and Morten Traavik's film purports to be a documentary, but it must surely be a put-on. Chronicling the events leading up to a concert performed by the Slovenian rock band Laibach in North Korea, the movie is so mind-bogglingly bizarre that one expects Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat to wander in at any time and make clear that it's all just a joke. That everything seen in Liberation Day happens to be true just makes the doc receiving its U.S. theatrical premiere at New York City's Film Forum all the more jaw-dropping.

Laibach was formed in Yugoslavia in 1980 and became controversial for their use of fascist imagery and abrasive, industrial music-style cover versions of such songs as Opus' "Life Is Life," The Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" and Europe's "The Final Countdown." In 2015, the North Korean government was persuaded to invite the band to perform there (co-director Traavik had previously worked with the country on several cultural exchange projects), with the program to consist, for some reason, of songs from The Sound of Music

Needless to say, there were a few bumps in the road. The media reacted to the story in predictably befuddled fashion, as evidenced by a clip from HBO's Last Week Tonight in which host John Oliver jokes that even though North Korea is a terrifying place to visit, this is one occasion when he'd like to go. Upon arriving in the country, the musicians find themselves dealing with exasperated handlers, primitive technology, censorship and a government official who, during a welcome dinner, delivers a blistering speech outlining the many reasons that the band shouldn't have been allowed to perform there. When one of the bandmembers doesn't show up at the tour bus at the assigned time, the resulting suspense concerning his whereabouts only adds to the overall feeling of dislocation.

It all plays like satire, except, of course, that North Korea itself is such a bizarre entity that everything about it takes on an air of alternate reality. Couple that with the absurd provocations of Laibach — about which pop culture commentator and philosopher Slavoj Zizek weighs in, declaring that band should be taken deadly seriously rather than satirically — and a perfect storm of surrealism is in effect.

The odd subject matter should have made for a riveting film, but, like many documentaries, Liberation Day (the title refers to the North Korean holiday celebrating the anniversary of the end of Japanese rule) feels both too short and too long. Too short because many of the situations it depicts are ill-defined and poorly explained, and too long because it often proves repetitive and meandering. By the time the film reaches its conclusion with a brief snippet of the band's performance, you'll be feeling as bewildered as the North Koreans seen watching it.

Production companies: VFS Films, Traavik, Norsk Fjernsyn, Staragara
Distributor: Sundance Now
Directors: Morten Traavik, Ugis Olte
Producer: Uldis Cekulis
Directors of photography: Valdis Celmins, Sven-Erling Brusletto
Editors: Gatis Belogrudovs, Ugis Olte

97 minutes

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