NEVER underestimate the power of film. That’s one of the take-home messages of the new documentary Chuck Norris vs Communism. Exploring the impact of the 1980s home video revolution on the revolution that unseated Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, the film makes an intriguing case for the value of bootlegged American action movies as instruments of change – at least in Romania.
It’s not as outlandish as it sounds. While radio and contraband newspapers were a big source of news from the West, images sometimes speak louder than words and, much like social media has played a part in recent political uprisings, the film argues that the thriving blackmarket for illegally procured movies such as Dirty Dancing, Rocky, The Terminator and the collected works of the film’s namesake, Chuck Norris, helped foment a desire for change by showing those behind the Iron Curtain there was another world out there.
“That’s what came out of the interviews,” says the film’s director, Ilinca Calugareanu in her Romanian home in Cluj-Napoca. “I spent the first two years talking to people, trying to understand what these tapes meant to them. And they kept saying that they opened a window to the West. But even more important than showing them the material things that everyone knows about – the cars, the food, the houses, the things they didn’t have – was the way these films showed how people interacted in a free society in the smallest way, such as being able to talk with people without having to look over your shoulder and worry if they’re a member of the secret police.”
The seemingly simple act of watching films in Romania during the 1980s was fraught with this kind of paranoia. At the time, VCRs were prohibitively expensive, so those with machines would organise underground video parties, charge admission and screen dubbed versions of whatever movies they could get their hands on. Calugareanu was born in 1981 so remembers well her own introduction to film through these events.
“My family wasn’t privileged enough to own a VCR, so they took me to a few of these group screenings. I remember preparing to go to one and stepping into the room where all the people were and feeling we were doing something illegal, something forbidden, something very exciting. It was almost like stepping into a room in which you felt you could touch the West.”
Such was the hunger for movies – any movies – it was common to sit through five in one night. And because there was no media about western pop culture, there was no information filtering through about any of the films. “You would go and just feel lucky to see anything because it was coming from outside and the information would just get mixed up in everybody’s heads. They weren’t curated, but after a while the organisers would get a feel for the room and how to keep people going for a long time. They’d start with a big film, maybe something they’d heard about, like Dirty Dancing, or things that people were whispering about. Then they would go into action/explosion type films to keep people from falling asleep. At the end of the night there might be something a little bit more erotic or naughty.
“I think parents knew not to keep their kids there all the way to the end of the night,” she adds with a laugh. “But there were also a lot of moments of telling the kids to go outside for a little while until the controversial scenes were over – or to put your hands over your eyes.”
For anyone who grew up in the 1980s and experienced that first wave of home video, seeing age-inappropriate movies would have been a common experience regardless of which part of the world they grew up in. “That’s something we were counting on when we knew we were telling this story,” Calugareanu says. “I felt this was a story that would be relatable for an Eastern European audience that has gone through it, but also for a Western audience because it’s a film about film and the power it has to affect us. These are experiences we share throughout the world.”
But the film isn’t just about the political impact of this phenomenon. At its heart it’s the story of the two people responsible for the operation: a shadowy entrepreneur by the name of Teodor Zamfir, who saw the financial potential in bootlegged movies, and Irinia Nistor, the woman he hired to dub most of the films for the Romanian audience. Calugareanu spoke extensively to both for the movie, though it took three years to convince the former to appear briefly on camera. “He’s a mysterious man and tries to keep himself in the background,” says Calugareanu, “but he made a fortune from it. He’s a millionaire today.”
Nistor is different. An employee for state television at the time, she was recruited by Zamfir to spend her evenings in a basement dubbing movies – which she was also watching for the first time. She proved so good at her job she ended up dubbing more than 1,000 films and her voice became as important and familiar to the audience as the stars of the films. Her identity, however, only came to light in the aftermath of the revolution when she got a job as a film critic on TV. “That’s when a lot of people started connecting the dots because her voice was so recognisable.”
For Romanian audiences at the time she was crucial in helping draw them into the experience, interpreting not just the dialogue, but the subtleties of the performances. Calugareanu remembers being terrified as a child watching Critters, purely because of Nistor’s voice. Was she keen to get her story out there? “Yes, she loves films and I think she was very excited about being in one.”
Calugareanu, who studied film in Manchester and pitched an early version of the film at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 2012, says she settled on Chuck Norris for the title after a conversation with Nistor revealed the three most popular stars in Romania were Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Bruce Lee. “I had to use one of them and Chuck Norris is the obvious choice because he’s a symbol for the all-American, all-guns-blazing action films that were coming through. There was just something appropriate about Chuck Norris and the fight against Communism,” she says.
Since it played at Sundance this year she knows Norris is aware of the film, but would love to screen it for him. “I spoke to James Bruner [screenwriter of Norris epics Invasion USA and Delta Force] and explained how their films made their way to Romania, and he was so touched and humbled by the story of how these films travelled behind the Iron Curtain, so I’d love to know what he thinks.”
And this, she surmises, is the true power of film. “Beyond any categorisation or any value that we can add to films as high art or low art, they impact people in different ways and can have such a big effect – whether it’s Robert De Niro or Chuck Norris.”
Chuck Norris vs Communism has its European Premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on 24 and 25 June, and will be released in UK cinemas in September. www.chucknorrisvscommunism.co.uk