The prankish promise of Ugis Olte and Morten Traavik’s new doc, Liberation Day — the film revealing what happened behind the scenes when the winkingly militarist Slovenian dance-rock growl band Laibach got invited last year to perform a concert in Kim Jong-un’s North Korea — futzes out like the Fifties-era Pyongyang power grid. Turns out that prepping to perform in a despot’s ritziest theater is as tedious to watch as prepping to perform almost anyplace would be. Aficionados of watching roadies and translators explain to local technicians exactly which cables should run where will be in heaven. The rest of us, though, may be wondering what the point of it all is — and why the directors have chosen only to blithely document the buildup to the show rather than examine what the show means.
Their film perks to life on occasion. As he does in an increasing number of docs, John Oliver serves as a borrowed-footage hype man, laying out the strangeness of Laibach’s invitation in an old Last Week Tonight segment. He drops the news that the band has chosen for its set to perform songs from The Sound of Music, a decision the filmmakers don’t bother to explicate. Maybe someone could have pointed out, as the band rehearses its plush dreampop “Do-Re-Mi,” that the 1965 film of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical stands as one of the few movies from the West that the dictators have allowed to play in North Korea. Instead, the set list, like so much else about Laibach and their performance here, is presented as weak-sauce Dada.
Also of interest: glimpses of life on the streets and squares of Pyongyang, seen through bus windows and during the band’s occasional supervised excursions outside the theater or its hotel. Like a sort of industrial-rock Ringo in a dystopian A Hard Day’s Night, Laibach’s Ivan Novak stirs a panic by wandering off to poke around the city despite having been sternly warned never to leave his minders. He returns somewhat dazzled: He reports that he’s seen a “utopia” that “seems functional.” Later, Novak briefly considers whether introducing the citizenry to Western rock is a positive development: “There’s a crack in every wall, and that’s where the spirit gets in. The question is, do we need to make it wider? Because these people seem to be happy.” Is Novak serious? Isn’t this like making conclusions about American life after surveying the three blocks around Lincoln Center? And would it kill the filmmakers to ask a follow-up question?
We see some of those happy people: Couples waltzing on a sidewalk dance floor; weeping believers laying flowers at the feet of the great statues of their leader’s father and grandfather; the dutiful censors who politely tell Laibach not to project video of CGI explosions behind the concert, as the crowd might think there’s an attack. The band pushes back on some changes, but mostly accepts them. One surprise is the axing of a strikingly beautiful rendition of a local folk-pop propaganda hit, 2015’s “We Will Go to Mount Paektu,” which celebrates Kim Jong-un’s visit to the peaks of his family’s past and vows to keep “following the Party all the way on the path to glory.” To Western ears, Laibach’s rendition sounds respectful, even reverent, but its liberties with the arrangement, the band is told, will confuse and upset North Koreans.
What might confuse and upset you, of course, is the question of why Laibach are disappointed not to be allowed to sing the dictator’s song in the dictator’s hall. We learn nothing of how and why the band chose the song, what message it intended with it, or what reaction it expected, from the DPRK or from the West. Instead, we hear more than you would ever want to about Pyongyang’s microphones and mixing consoles, and we watch too many scenes of the band being slightly nervous that the show might not come off. They’re not scared they might be arrested, and they’re not plotting any surprises — they just want their music to be heard and enjoyed. The film never makes clear the stakes of this concert: Is it just for the people in the hall? Is it being broadcast across the country? Is Kim Jong-un watching? There’s even too little of Laibach’s music, which in this performance is, by necessity, somewhat restrained. At the final show, we just see their rousing march “The Whistleblowers,” and then the audience’s standing ovation, and then the movie’s over. Rest assured, the cords stayed connected, but to what end?
Directed by Ugis Olte and Morten Traavik
Opens October 18, Film Forum