© Lisa-Katrina Mayer

I first heard about Liebesgrüße aus Nordkorea (Traitor’s Guide to North Korea) when I happened to be sitting next to the Norwegian director and author Morten Traavik, whose book had recently been published in German. This was the reason why he was in Berlin at the time, at a dinner with mutual friends in the summer of 2020 - the first ostensible break for relaxation between the lockdowns.

That evening, he told me about his travels to North Korea and how he had organised the first rock concert by a foreign band in the country's history, initiated encounters between European and North Korean artists and produced and filmed various documentaries, in addition to numerous other projects.

For me as somebody who loves to travel, this was pure oil to the flame of wanderlust; at a time when travelling to distant countries (and moreover to a country like North Korea) was hardly imaginable.

So the next day I went straight out and bought the book, and while reading it I was transported to a country and a world that seemed so far removed from the reality of my own life, but at the same time kept taking me, as a cultural worker, to places that were all too familiar to me.

It gave me a glimpse into one of the most isolated countries in the world, which up to now was mainly tied for me to prejudices and opinions formed by the media.

Reading about it from the perspective of this exciting artist opened up new vantage points for me.

We creators of art and culture in our safe, established Western democratic world, which extensively guarantees freedom of expression and art, probably can't even begin to fathom what it means to live in a regime like that of Kim Jong-un (or one of his predecessors), let alone to make art in places like this.

Morten Traavik has set out to explore this, and not as an onlooker. Instead, he has immersed himself in the depths of the system.

These are impressive stories that he has brought back with him. Sometimes he can only speak of them in the book in riddles and hints, so that as a reader I suddenly felt almost like an accomplice.

With great sensitivity and respect for the people and their culture, the author describes how his story has become interwoven over the years with the stories of the people he met, and reports with much humour on his numerous experiences, projects and collaborations that he initiated with European and North Korean artists over several years across cultures and borders.

For me, this book very specifically highlights how urgent it is - now more than ever - to encounter each other openly, to listen to each other and to open our eyes, minds and hearts in an unprejudiced way, even to things that may be strange to us and difficult to access. 

After reading Liebesgrüße aus Nordkorea, I was extremely inspired and wrote Morten an email. How often are you in the luxurious situation of being able to address your questions directly to the author?

An exciting exchange began between us and after some time I suddenly received a treatment for a script that Morten Traavik was developing.

He then offered me the lead role in his new feature film, which is based on one of the most incredible, moving stories I have come across in European auteur cinema so far.

I was thrilled and accepted immediately.

And so this lockdown reading did more than just give me an insight into artistic creation within the regime of North Korea; it also established an important, trend-setting artistic collaboration at the same time.

Lisa-Katrina Mayer, 1 September 2021

The photo was taken while I was moving during the subsequent lockdown, whilst talking to the author.