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Morten Traavik: Interview

In early October, a festival of documentary films about music and the new culture Beet Weekend swept over 15 Russian cities. ‘Liberation Day‘, a documentary about a concert of the Slovenian metal group Laibach in Pyongyang, became one of the eye-openers of this festival. The film director, Norwegian Morten Traavik, came to Novosibirsk to present his film to the local public, and Converter asked Maxim Seleznev, a programme director of Pobeda center for culture and leisure, to talk to Morten about how totally different cultures can co-exist and interact.



As I opened your website, the first thing I saw was a world map with several points of action, countries in which you have implemented your projects. The picture is unusual: besides Norway, Switzerland, and Croatia, many exotic places, like the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Angola, and Cambodia, begin to flicker. How do you choose countries for your projects? And how important is the geographic scatter for you?

In fact, everything starts with an impulse, an idea. This is what happened with Angola and Cambodia, where we did a project ‘Miss Antipersonnel Mine’, a beauty contest for women whose limbs are amputated. It was important for me to draw the public attention to the problem itself, just to the fact that such places do exist.

Once before Christmas, I spent a couple of weeks visiting my girlfriend’s father, who lived in Angola. At that time, the children from the neighbourhood organized a beauty contest, a simple holiday for common people. At the same time, the event took place a year after the civil war. Large parts of the country were turned into minefields, and it was impossible to get there. So, two impressions got mixed to become a source of inspiration for me. I can say that the most important thing in any project is to come to another place and to meet new people there. It is important to experience everything. I believe in human communication more than in anything else. I am a trusting practical man.

Wenn ich an einem fremden Ort bin, ist meine Priorität mit den Leuten dort zu sprechen. Sie zu spüren, die Atmosphäre zu spüren. Ich glaube daran, dass Kommunikation alles ist. In dieser Hinsicht bin ich Praktiker.

Have you been to North Korea once?

Twenty times.

I am asking you this because, when in Liberation Day you were asked “Are you in DPRK for the first time?”, you, after some delay, answered, “This is my fifteenth time”. If one knows nothing about your activities, one might find it a joke, trolling concerning the Korean comrades. By the way, what’s the situation like with the sense of humour in North Korea?

Oh, I am often awfully funny for them, a strange white man. And what is strange is almost always funny. Therefore, in a certain way, our sense of humour is equal, only we have different understanding of strangeness. Our film is based on casualty; it is ‘lost in translation moments‘. In my opinion, the more exotic and queer a certain culture seems to us, the more important it is not to perceive it too literally and too tragically. Instead, we should try to communicate with people like equals, even where it is nearly impossible. How can I, a white man from a rich country, really understand a poor woman from Angola? I can try, though, and this attempt is worth something.

When I was asked about who Morten Traavik is, I would say that he is an artist, a film director, an activist, and, to crown it all, the minister of defence of Norway.

Ah-ha, that’s true.

You play this role in ‘Occupied‘, a series with a funny plot – Russia invades Norway, whereas the European Union and the USA are listlessly watching it.

This description is accurate. Yes, this is fiction based on the modern material. This is a fantasy on a political experiment based on the deeply rooted fear of the Norwegian politicians that the former USSR would occupy our country. This is so typical of the current reality, when the country’s prime-minister, living in Oslo, is frightened by Russia, and the people living at the border between the two countries are not.

As for the series, I play the Commander-in-Chief of the army in the first episode and become the Minister of Defence in the second one. The role is quite small, but it is funny to see my face one every three out of five advertising shots, so, it might seem to someone that I am the main character there.

Did you feel like a western invader in DPRK, didn’t you? It often happens that often Europeans, who get tired of their own culture, go east in search of new impressions. And this behavior of penetrating into an alien culture, in order to learn many new things and to take home the prey is similar to the tactics of colonizers and conquistadors, who explored the other lands in order to come back home rich.

Honestly speaking, I didn’t. Norwegians are historically a peaceful nation. OK, Vikings were not nice guys. Other than that, we have always lived more or less peacefully. Therefore, I do not feel any colonial past behind me. And I am not very serious about it, I am not afraid of looking like an imperialist monster. In DPRK, I rather felt like a destroyer of stereotypes. But this destruction should always be two-edged and work in two directions.

Rather soon I was able to establish a contact at a human level. It is not that I am talking about the friendship of nations at first sight... It is important to understand that, before the concert of Laibach I already had other projects in DPRK, and I was gradually shifting the boundaries between our worlds and opened up a little more space for such joint work. Without such work of many years, a concert of the terrible provocative industrial group would be unthinkable.

Our friendship of nations started in Novosibirsk from you leaving the plan wearing a hat with earflaps, a Russian meme, while the people meeting you at the airport were wearing disco balls hiding their heads.

"Morten Traavik at the airport", dir./camera: Philipp Krikunov, 2017

I am very thankful to you for that! My respect!

In some sense, all this is a cliché and kitsch. This is what Laibach works with. Can it happen then, that some things, seemingly the silliest and the most false ones, may become the best tool for dialogue and mutual understanding?

Yes, that’s right. Yet, it is important to understand that the context always adds a new meaning to the kitsch symbols and enriches them. This is a phenomenon which has only one embedded meaning. In this sense, the concert of Laibach in Pyongyang is far from kitsch, as it discovers new meanings. Ambiguity arises. Yes, this is one of the methods I learnt from Laibach back in the 1980s.

What did you learn from North Koreans?

I do not know yet. I am extremely curious about what may result from their attempt to create a utopia. Do you know what quality is the strongest in North Koreans? Collectivism. This is a society that acts like a single organism, which demonstrated not only at the parades or in public: it is felt in everyday life. Koreans are always sincerely supporting each other and taking care of each other. I think that the western man yearns this state of consciousness, and this is why rock concerts and football are so popular. Yes, this is a human feeling of belonging; only totalitarian systems are more active in playing with this feeling. Of course, there is a reverse side of this, social pressure on the man in the street, casual repression.

What is the future of your relations with North Korean like?

In fact, I have just decided to make a break. Last time I was in DPRK a month ago, I noticed that the situation there was becoming really scary: I felt the atmosphere of an Orwellian nightmare. The situation is quite predictable. I have noticed many times that every time the USA or the European Union raise their voices, the Korean regime immediately responds by hardening the repressions of the local population. Now President Trump is a godsend for the most conservative Korean generals. He is the enemy they could only dream of. Because of this, any foreigner is perceived in North Korea as a spy. My Korean friends do not think about me as a spy, but they are obliged to think so. I believe we have approached the thin red line after which it would be dangerous to continue what we are doing, not only for me but rather for my Asian friends. Well, let us step backwards and wait for the new glasnost span.

Many of your projects were related to geography. In particular, one of the most remarkable projects was related to the frontier posts between Norway and the USSR. You made an installation from them in the central squares of Oslo, Murmansk, and Kirkenes. This is a very clever illustration of the fact that the old geography is getting outdated and crushes down under the influx of refugees and tourists. What would your ideal utopian model of current geography be?

Maybe, I am too old to think in terms of utopias. In fact, I do not mind boundaries, they are very useful: not only geographical and political but also the mental ones. We would get crazy without boundaries, as we get overwhelmed by the flow of information and by the daily and often contradictory impressions. I do not feel like a revolutionary, rather, like a reformer. There is no sense in persuading people into what they should think. It is important to make those mechanisms visible that already exist and are functioning. Let everyone decide then what to do with them. My utopia is to inform people and make things visible – just like that.

What next? Which country is going to be the next one?

Norway. It is the right time! We have lots of our own problems. It is important not to forget about ourselves, to think of our own country, not only to reflect on the surrounding world.
© Maxim Seleznev

Maxim Seleznev


The program director of the Pobeda cinema in Novosibirsk, the chief editor of the magazine about independent films "Cineticle"

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