World News

Rocking Pyongyang: Film recalls Laibach's North Korea gig

Growling "Sound of Music" covers while decked out in military uniforms, Laibach was one of the first Western bands to perform in North Korea.

Posted Updated

Marian Liu (CNN)
(CNN) — Growling "Sound of Music" covers while decked out in military uniforms, Laibach was one of the first Western bands to perform in North Korea.

It was an ironic juxtaposition, a politically provocative band performing to an audience of 1,500 in a closed communist society.

"One goal was simply to see if it could be done," said Morten Traavik, the director of a new documentary about the 2015 concert.

The Slovenian industrial rock band is well known for inciting controversy, with rally-like concerts, even projecting porn clips over old propaganda video. Their name is taken from the German name of the Slovenian capital under Nazi occupation.

It was Laibach's first and only trip to North Korea. They toured around the country and band member Ivan Novak said he saw "poverty and elegance," but none of the "cynicism, negativism" and "pornography" he sees in the West.

"When you are there, you really feel like you are in the Truman show," Novak said. "It is a kind of existing utopia that it looks likes it is functioning."

Censors regularly hung around their practice sessions, suggesting many concert edits.

Laibach obliged, deleting nude imagery and half of their show, from 18 songs to nine and 90 minutes to 45. The lineup included some of their own songs like "The Whistleblowers," a version of the Korean song, "Arirang" and "Sound of Music" covers, but their tribute to the North Korean song "We Will Go to Mount Paektu" was cut. Censors said it would cause "complete mayhem."

"That censorship is not as cunning as censorship in the West," said Novak. "If you go on YouTube, they tell you this and this videos are not appropriate for advertising, so that is a form of censorship in the West.... But in North Korea ... it's purely aesthetical things really, this explosion is too heavy."

"Liberation Day," the documentary about the show was released last year, and is currently being shown in film festivals all over the world.

The documentary details Laibach's path to North Korea and how the band dealt with outdated technology, censorship and clashing cultures once they were there.

"It was kind of a no-brainer, that Laibach's totalitarian aesthetics, their story and everything about them made it the most challenging and, at same time, the most familiar, to bring to North Korean ears," said Traavik.

During the 2015 show, when the camera pans to the audience, many of the North Koreans look confused.

"It's a very normal reaction to any Laibach show anyway," said Traavik, on the phone in Barcelona while promoting the documentary at the city's film festival.

Reviews of the documentary are mixed, calling the film everything from "thoughtful" to "bizarre."

Novak hasn't been back since, but director Traavik has traveled to North Korea more than 20 times, directing other art projects like students in an accordion version of A-ha's "Take on Me," a Norwegian festival and a DMZ academy, bringing European artists into North Korea for a symposium.

He also has a very different take on North Korea, describing it as a "third world country posing as a super power."

"This country cannot be a threat to anybody but itself," he said.

Copyright 2023 by Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.