The portrayal of North Korea through our own western media makes it easy to think of the country as totally isolated and ‘closed off.’
Not only closed off from other countries by means of geography, border controls and tourism, but there are more factors preventing openness such as the state’s control of its people, it has a way of prohibiting consumption of western culture, arts, music, access and use of the internet, not to mention freedom of speech. It is easy to keep going and add to a long list of what is prohibited, but in a way it makes little sense to continue, we know enough to understand the overall idea, we get the gist of it.
Numerous attempts at showing what life in the totalitarian state is really like have gone before Liberation Day and some of these are pretty decent. So it is not about criticising the quality of the journalism or the reporting of it.
It just goes to show the level of censorship in operation there and how risky, or dangerous, it can be to get on the wrong side of it.
The focus on delivering definitive and exact insight into the communist state such as covering the ‘truth about’, ‘life in’ and ‘escaping’ North Korea are all perfectly accurate headlines that will inevitably awake interest and intrigue well into the foreseeable future.
In essence, the country and its people have become a bit of an editorial hotspot for journalists and filmmakers. But everyone who goes there encounters more or less the same problem; a lack access, a strong level of censorship combined with the possible prospect of imprisonment and what can be described as worse.
Liberation Day directed by Norwegian Morten Traavik is a strong piece of documentary work. The director does come across a lot of the same problems as his fellow craftsmen, but there is at least one difference with this particular documentary as Traavik seeks to report on how he deals with some of the problems that he encounters rather than avoid or try to escape them. There would appear to be no hidden camera work in operation or situations exposing aggressive situations with state officials for not showing the North Korean leader the respect they believe he deserves.
This documentary is about a fan putting on a concert with one of his favourite bands but doing so under highly challenging circumstances. Being a fan of a band and choosing to make a documentary about them is not a new idea, but linking that to North Korea, does mean entering the far lesser known territory.
The narrative is built around the process of arranging a 70th-anniversary concert to celebrate North Korea’s liberation from Japan at one of the most prestigious venues in Pyongyang. Invited by the state, the band’s association, or image, adds an extra dimension to the film as it has an association with right-wing sympathies and fascism.
In the film, we see how this association influences the story when the North Korean censorship committee forces the band to drop ‘controversial’ songs from their setlist as they are deemed unsuitable for national audiences.
Other issues to deal with relating to the technical set-up at the venue, which is described as being reminiscent of untouched equipment straight out of the 1950s, and communication with crew members falls short on a few occasions.
Liberation Day tells a story of cultural and political differences. To what extent is it possible to let a free creative, artistic expression loose in a country that has rarely seen nor experienced it?
It portrays a country that has never before been exposed to popular culture to any measurable degree, let alone rock and roll bands and Western concert style, capitalism and the free market.
This project is about telling a story about the boundaries and the problems involved in trying to do this.
We follow director Traavik and the avant-garde band’s struggle of a journey in dealing with the North Korean authorities and censorship. Being the first rock and roll band to perform there is one thing, and being so different so out there, is another. As the director expresses the film on the official Liberation Day homepage, the film was created “under the loving but firm guidance of an old fan turned director and cultural diplomat.”
This will have been a hugely ambitious project to undertake, one that involves a lot of problem-solving, diplomacy and flexibility at all times. It requires 100 percent to manage such a project but Traavik takes total ownership of it and drives it with passion, determination and calm.
Liberation Day is an achievement, not just for fans of music or arts but for audiences with an interest in political documentaries and journalistic reporting beyond the European borders.