AMSTERDAM — It’s not often that a band that has been on the circuit since 1980 and had several bona fide mainstream hits can be considered in any meaningful way underground. And yet Slovenia’s Laibach are just as mysterious today as the day they were formed; the leading power behind the former Yugoslavia’s Neue Slowenische Kunst (New Slovenian Art) movement, the band has artfully, and even playfully, manipulated the imagery of the totalitarian east to create an enigmatic industrial dance-rock outfit whose Wagnerian videos – often mistaken for neo-fascist kitsch – offer a deadpan parody of bombastic western pop/rock.
So when Laibach announced last year that they would be performing in North Korea as part of the notoriously secretive country’s Liberation Day – a landmark celebrating 70 years independence from Japanese rule – even their fans didn’t know what was going on. But as Morten Traavik’s feature debut “Liberation Day” – which made its international debut at IDFA on Saturday – shows, the concert was actually the culmination of several years’ work, and part of a series of “social intervention” projects devised by former aid worker Traavik. As a result, the film – co-directed by the mostly offscreen Ugis Olte, with Traavik as ringmaster – is an often very funny but always thoughtful examination of cultural differences and what it means to judge by appearances. As Traavik puts it, “You can’t take Laibach to North Korea and not show something more than just the concert.”
Variety spoke to Traavik at IDFA.
Were you a fan of Laibach when you came up with this project?
Morten Traavik: Actually it was the other way round. In my formative years – the late ’80s and early ’90s, which for me is still Laibach’s golden age, artistically and musically – they were a huge influence on my artistic coming of age. And then they kind of dropped off my radar, after the “NATO” album in 1994. I was so disappointed with it. I still kept listening to my favourite tracks, but they weren’t really on my radar that much any more.
A French graphic designer who had done some work for the band a couple of years ago sent Ivan [Novak] of Laibach a link to a music video I did for a Norwegian band, along with a half-joking suggestion. He said: “This guy works with North Korea – you guys should meet and see if you can go there.” So Ivan sent me an email and we discussed the possibility of taking Laibach to North Korea. Because it is kind of a no-brainer. If you’re a Laibach fan, it’s bound to pop up, that idea. But nothing really came of it. And in the meantime he asked me to direct the video for [their 2014 single] “The Whistleblowers,” which came out very well. And we just stayed in touch.
In the film you say you’ve been to Korea 15 times. Is that true?
Well, now it’s 17. [Laughs] My first visit was in 2008, but that was more out of curiosity, which I guess is the usual reason why people go there. But the process that led to Laibach going there didn’t really start until 2011, which is when I managed to hook up with the right people inside the North Korean system, who I felt could be good partners. At that time, the Laibach concert wasn’t on the table at all. I don’t know if you’ve seen some of the earlier stuff I did in North Korea, but [the Laibach concert] is the crowning achievement, as far as where we’ve got to now. I’d been gradually pushing the envelope through doing a series of similar projects that I directed in and with North Korea since 2012. So it’s a continuation of what went before.
How would you characterise your career prior to this?
I’d done some music videos for Laibach and other bands, but this is my first full-length filmic adventure. I’m a theatre director by education, which of course is next door to filmmaking. But when it comes to all the technical skills, the nuts and bolts of the movie, that’s Ugis’s department. He’s the professional.
Do you see this film as a continuation with your art projects?
I see it as part of it. It’s definitely an integral part of an ongoing artistic practise. I love that it seems to be being well received, and people are reacting positively to it, but the most satisfying thing for me is that we managed to do a film that does justice to the film and the attitude – or attitudes – behind it. So we have a monument to this event and also to the various processes behind it – my process, Laibach’s process, North Korea’s process – all converging together in one prism and then going off in all directions.
The band members never really explain their motives. Was that frustrating as a director – were you hoping to bring anything out of them?
Not really. I didn’t really think I needed to bring anything out – they come pre-packaged for North Korea. I guess, as with many artistic choices, it’s part decision and part necessity. Partly, Laibach is a band that very strongly resists being demystified. [Lead singer] Milan, for example, never talks to the press, ever, and hasn’t done in human memory. So Ivan is their spokesman. Their manager in many ways. But they were really unkeen, and they’ve always been that way, to have any backstage, everyday trivia. Which is also similar to North Korea – they also don’t want you nosing around too much backstage.
How did you come to be the main focus?
Well, of course, the laws of film dramaturgy say you need a driving character to keep the plot together, and it was hard to get around me, simply because my whole function in the whole undertaking is so pivotal to the preparing and execution of it. For reasons that are pretty obvious when you see the film, there was no chance that I could be behind the camera and running the whole show. So that’s where Ugis came into the picture, and I just left it to him and Valdis [Clemins], my DoP.
You seem very relaxed in North Korea. Were you ever intimidated?
No. I know people there. I know them, and they know me. And the more you know people, the more yourself you can be. You know, North Korea’s not my first social intervention project. I’ve been warming up in other countries – but countries that have significantly different cultures and sets of values. Angola, Cambodia… [Laughs] Sweden!
What were these other projects?
The first milestone in this way of working was, I guess, the Miss Landmine project – organised a beauty pageant for landmine-injured women. First in Angola [in 2008], in south-east Africa, and then, the year after that, in Cambodia, with the full blessing and collaboration of the local authorities. Again, I worked with the big shots to be able to pull it off. As you can imagine, it drew a lot of attention and a lot of controversy also, internationally. I was also the Norwegian Army’s first, and probably last, artist in residence back in 2010.
Why would you be the last?
Because there were a lot of scandals. It all started with the first one, which is when I made probably the world’s biggest condom and draped it over a 7m nuclear-capable missile from the cold war, and he had it in the drill yard outside [Akershus Fortress in Oslo]. Many people didn’t get it. But I knew that if you do a big condom on a rocket that looks like a cock, the media will come running. Which they did.
Did you expect so much media for the Laibach project?
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. There were two waves of publicity – one when we launched the news last summer in June, I think, which is when it very nearly went to hell! The North Koreans got tipped off by their embassies – “Do you know who you’re inviting?” They were totally freaked out, my people.
Is there anything else that went on that we don’t see in the movie?
The movie is just the tip of the iceberg. Once we were there – once we were physically there – I wasn’t really that worried that the concert wouldn’t happen. Of course I knew it would be hard, but I knew it would, ultimately, happen. But until we actually stepped off the plane at Pyongyang, there was a year of discussing back and forth – selling in Laibach. Trying to make the North Koreans understand what Laibach is about while, also, being a bit selective. Not all of Laibach’s career and background is eminently pitch-able to a North Korean jury.
How did Laibach feel about the film when you first showed it to them?
They loved it. All of them. And they are Slovenian, who are like the Finns of the former Yugoslavia. [Laughs] If a Slovenian says something is fantastic, then he is on ecstasy or something. So it’s a major compliment.