This article was last modified on July 16, 2017.


Fantasia 2017 Film Review: “Liberation Day”

The Slovenian cult band Laibach becomes the first foreign rock group ever to perform in the fortress state of North Korea. Confronting strict ideology and cultural differences, the band struggles to get their songs through the needle’s eye of censorship before they can be unleashed on an audience never before exposed to rock music.

For those not familiar with Laibach, the band is something of a mix between Devo and Rammstein. In fact, Rammstein freely admits that is influenced by Laibach. Their performance art is steeped in fascist and nationalist imagery; apparently, the North Korean government does not understand the meaning of “satire” and this is one reason the band managed to get the dubious honor of playing rather than, say, Aerosmith or the Rolling Stones. In their own words, “We are fascists as much as Hitler was a painter”. Take that however you like.

The biggest question viewers might have is how filmmakers even had access to film inside North Korea. That answer is director Morten Traavik, a Norwegian director and artist who is something of a cultural ambassador to the country. Although this documentary is about Laibach and the censorship of North Korea, the figure of Traavik looms large. This is a man who held multiple beauty pageants for landmine survivors. And, when asked about political oppression, he says (not entirely jokingly), “I live in Sweden now, it’s pretty oppressive. It’s like a Soviet Union made by gay people.”

Once inside North Korea, danger seems to lurk around every corner. The band and their crew are warned not to wander off alone; without Traavik, they have no mediator. The people there are openly referred to as “brainwashed” and this is evident from the few people who are interviewed on camera. The Kafa-esque levels of bureaucracy are absurd, with the band not even being made aware of who is handing out censorship decisions or why.

Some of the censorship issues actually raise interesting cultural points. The band considered adding some lyrics in Korean to appeal to their audience, but were then told it was risky because it might sound “South” Korean. The countries have been divided for so long that the languages have almost become distinct due to the tight borders. North Korea speaks the same language it spoke 75 years ago, whereas South Korea has been more open to modifications from outside languages. In such an inter-connected world, any language will naturally adapt words from other cultures. But not North Korea.

The concert included re-interpretations of songs from “The Sound of Music”, which seems subtly subversive considering the film was, of course, about a family fleeing totalitarianism. With all the lyric notes, video edits and other changes the North Korean censors required, it is rather surprising they allowed this to go through. Then again, did the audience fully grasp the symbolism anyway?

Any documentary inside North Korea would be fascinating, but it’s the merger of North Korea and a group of individuals like Laibach that raises the film to the level of the absurd. Without a doubt, this is one of the year’s best documentaries and a rare treat where truth is stranger than fiction. “Liberation Day” screens at the Fantasia International Film Festival on July 16, 2017.

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