The Democratic People's Republic of North Korea has been around since the mid-nineteen-forties, split from South Korea by a clash of ideologies thanks to the North embracing Communism, and nobody seems to want to do anything to heal the division, it being politically expedient to keep it alive for both economic and propaganda purposes. Ah yes, propaganda, the mention of which cues the Slovenian art rock band Laibach, who emerged from Communist Yugoslavia as the premier satirisers of totalitarian regimes, which they saw everywhere both in the rulers of their land and the mass gatherings such as rock and pop concerts of the West. So when they were invited to play in North Korea, some twenty-five years after Communism's fall in their homeland, sparks would fly...
The thing about Laibach is, what makes them controversial, was how far they were in on the joke, how far they were sending up the imagery and sounds they grew up with and how much they embraced them for their rousing power. They remain controversial to this day with opinion polarised; there are those who say they are quite brilliant with their juxtaposition of fascist and Communist eyes to the skies propaganda with the masses at concerts, preferably stadium concerts, all equal in their view of humanity taking to rallies to express themselves, or more accurately told to express themselves by a higher authority. Then again, the old Kurt Vonnegut maxim about being careful who you pretend to be enters into the subject.
Vonnegut pointed out we are who we pretend to be, therefore were Laibach so keen to embrace some admittedly influential stylings because they could parody them, or because they believed hey, this stuff is good!? There was no question in North Korea those trappings of propaganda were delivered with the utmost sincerity, resulting in a peculiar tension throughout this absorbing documentary. The director, Morten Traavik, acted as the band's guide and organiser, having worked with the republic before, and there are times he obviously admires the state, and others when he finds it incredibly frustrating apparently for the simple reason that the citizens and powers that be are not in on their joke.
Which prompts us to ask if it's even a joke at all, and it was a conundrum the film never got to the bottom of, for Laibach looked curiously out of their depth when encountering an actual totalitarian government, curious because you would have expected them to be old hands at dealing with them given the band's grounding. On reaching the country, we were offered glimpses of what life was like there, nothing damning but nothing exactly making you want to move there and live in their self-styled utopia either. Traavik was canny enough to include news footage of how the North Koreans were not the blessed and benevolent state they would portray themselves to their citizens as, and the build up to the concert, the first time a Western rock band ever played there and supposedly a positive event, was contrasted with the cycle of yet more warmongering with the South.
That would be negative, and did tend to diminish the struggles of Laibach as they saw their show meddled with during rehearsals, the setlist gradually whittled down to a handful of songs the audience would not find offensive. Intriguingly, a version of the nation's most beloved folk song was toned down from their original conception because the censors insist to hear it in that delivery would terrify the crowd and cause them to riot, which increased the interest in seeing precisely how they would react to what they did witness. In every scene we are wondering, what is either side getting out of this, and aside from publicity it's difficult to discern any benefit as the grand finale, when the concert takes place, goes down mildly. Nobody gets up and walks out, yet nobody dances in the aisles either, an anti-climax when it's hard to gauge the reaction from the Koreans aside from polite curiosity. Nevertheless, Liberation Day offered a wary insight into what happens when satire meets its target and is pointedly asked, you see anything funny here?