It was Romania, and the year was 1985. A population frightened into submission by secret police and round the clock surveillance under the dictatorial thumb of communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu were unable to act towards their own freedom, or show any act of defiance. But into this dark time came a hero: Chuck Norris. Well, sort of. Ok, not really.
The title of Chuck Norris vs Communism is misleading. It suggests that the 80s action star of such hits as Missing in Action, The Delta Force and Lone Wolf McQuade brought down the Iron Curtain. That may not be true exactly, but it wouldn’t be untruthful to say that Norris didn’t do his part just by being there. In video cassette form.
It’s easy to forget now that with entire film libraries are as close as an internet connection and a Netflix account just how revolutionary home video was when it hit the mass market in the 80s. It turns out that VCRs were even more revolutionary in Eastern Europe, as in they had the ability to alter the oppressive power structure of an entire country. This is the thesis of Ilinca Calugareanu’s documentary: that without the exploits of McQuade, Rambo, Scarface, the Terminator, and even Johnny Castle, then it may have been years, or never, that Ceausescu fell to a gathered force of his own people.
Overly simplistic? Perhaps. Political movements rarely come from one place, or one person, but Calugareanu makes a compelling, if not winning, argument that groups of people huddled around TVs watching bootlegged Hollywood films, and seeing a world that their government prevented them from seeing and experiencing, provoked them into demanding better for themselves. It’s not the craziest thing I’ve ever heard, and it certainly plays into the narrative of filmmakers and the idea that even the biggest, dumbest action movies can not only entertain, but save lives as well.
Chuck Norris Vs Communism comes with an usual conceit for a documentary, it almost seems like a dramatized version of the film’s events with color commentary from ordinary people that took part in so-called “video nights” during their expanding and increasing popularity in the middle to late 80s. It’s almost like a commentary track to the other film: the narrative, but true-to-life-story about a few dedicated souls that put their lives in danger to bring Western films to living rooms across Romania. It’s part heist movie, and part Americans like domestic spy thriller but told from the other side of the Cold War.
Calugareanu plays well on the nostalgia of VHS, like the documentary Rewind This! that dealt directly with the phenomenon of videotapes becoming the vinyl of select cinephiles. It’s an attitude that’s universal in Chuck Norris vs Communism, but with a different bend. Where as we here in the West cherish VHS tapes and VCRs for the reminder of beloved childhood memories watching our favourite movies for the umpteenth time, watching a Hollywood blockbuster on a VCR in Romania was an act of rebellion. It was dangerous; an act talked about in hushed whispers and coded language.
And like all good rebellions, there were heroes. Irina Nistor was the voice that Romanians heard on their copy of Rocky or Alien, an interpreter for the government who was recruited by the mysterious video pirate Teodor Zamfir to translate the English-language films for the enjoyment of people the country over. It’s funny to hear many of the Romanians that grew up hearing her as the voice of Sylvester Stallone, Sigourney Weaver and Tom Cruise talk about Nistor like some kind of legend.
But the commentary track isn’t the only humour to be found here. Nistor’s story, which is central to the enactments (flashbacks?) punctuates the tension of sneaking about to illegally distribute Hollywood hogwash with the odd moment of silliness from Romania’s dictatorial scheming. Nistor translated legit movies approved by the government after review, which would sometimes include cutting “objectionable” bits from films, like a Russian cartoon of a rabbit carrying three balloons – red, blue and yellow. What’s the big deal? Those are the colours of the Romanian flag, suggesting that Russia (represented by a wolf character) was more powerful, or better, than Romania.
I suppose it’s no secret that dictatorships can be ridiculous, just as it’s no secret that the secret police can be the most corruptible members of government of all. Still, these were desperate times, times when you could be rounded up, tortured and prisoned for no good reason, let alone a good reason like possession of contraband. For most of the movie, Nistor provides a voiceover of her story, but we never see her on film. Given the fact that Nistor we’re watching on screen is an actress, it allows the possibility that the one we’re hearing is an actress, too, perhaps reading from a diary. It adds a true sense of foreboding to the film and the implications for its heroine.
Calugareau is, of course, from Romania, and born right at the beginning of the video age in 1981, so it’s easy to understand the appeal for and the love given to the source material. Aside from that, Chuck Norris vs Communism is a wonderful film that takes place at the intersection of culture and history. The one feeds into the other, and while it’s hard to say that Ceausescu fell because of VCRs and American movie classics of the 80s, it’s also hard to say that it could have happened without it. If you’re looking for a celebration of cinema as a transformative vessel for broad social change, then Calugareau has made a very compelling case indeed.
Chuck Norris vs Communism is part spy movie thriller, part comedic tribute to VHS that firmly makes a case for the literal transformative power of cinema.