The documentary Chuck Norris vs. Communism has a fascinating story to tell, and for the most part writer-director Ilinca Calugareanu tells it well, by letting ordinary Romanians reminisce about the experience of watching bootleg VHS tapes of Hollywood movies during the 1980s. For Americans who can remember the period, it’s eye opening to learn the details of what life was like in the terminal years of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Romania, but also to see how routine U.S. multiplex fare could unwittingly take on subversive connotations behind the Iron Curtain.
Even by the standards of Eastern Bloc countries, Romania in the 1980s was an island apart, an economic black hole on the far edge of Europe. By the middle of the decade, as electricity became heavily rationed, Romanian television was down to one channel, for two hours a day. And as one interviewee in Chuck Norris vs. Communism recalls, “Anything on TV was just as bad as the food you could get to eat.”
In this overwhelmingly repressive environment, the newfangled wonders of the VCR player and VHS tapes, smuggled in from West Germany, became totems of rebellion. The unlikely hero here is Teodor Zamfir, a crafty black marketeer who started an underground business making bootleg VHS tapes with five VCRs. Within a few years, he had 360 VCRs cranking out duplicate tape after tape for an audience starved for content from outside the country’s borders — and for illegal imperialist spectacles from Hollywood above all.
Zamfir’s system for dubbing foreign videos was simple. He hired a woman named Irina Nistor, who worked by day as a translator for state-controlled media, to dub every voice in the movies he bootlegged. Nistor worked after hours in a basement, dubbing as many as 10 movies in one feverish all-nighter. She provided the Romanian dialogue for every character, male and female alike, regardless of their age; her voice became so familiar to her fellow citizens as they huddled together in communal viewings that she became an underground star. No one knew her name or what she looked like.
By 1989, Nistor had dubbed more than 3,000 films; when will the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognize her heroic efforts? Looking back, the older Nistor describes the forbidden Hollywood movies as having been, variously, her drug, her oxygen, an adrenalin rush, and “like escaping from jail.” Dubbing bootleg movies “seemed like a way to be free to spite the regime,” she says.
Romanian viewers were happy to crowd into small apartments to see anything, even on terrible second- and third-generation bootlegs, copies of copies, just for a glimpse of the outside world. But they did so at considerable risk. The Orwellian quality of life under Ceaușescu is made clear when we hear a story about militant true believers in one housing block who would rat out their neighbors to the police for watching illegal videos. You had to be careful who you invited over — or didn’t invite, perhaps — to watch Scarface or Rambo.
The American filmmakers whose works are cited here will never get a more sincere or moving tribute than what these middle-aged Romanians interviewees have to say. The movies, offers one, “…were what helped us to survive.” Another adds:
“There was a freshness and novelty that influenced you in so many ways. From seeing the clothes, the attitudes, the gestures…there was a whole world inside the video player.”
In a culture accustomed to live streams and cell phone videos uploaded from all over the world, it can boggle the mind to consider just how truly foreign the imagery in these movies was to people in a closed totalitarian society. The videos provided not just entertainment and much-needed escape, but a certain degree of enlightenment. Not surprisingly, the plots could take a backseat to the seemingly more mundane details: “We marveled at the landscape and streets, rather than the action, many times,” one viewer recalls.
Left unstated is that the Romanian audiences apparently took Hollywood’s representation of the U.S. at face value. If mainstream movies were your primary or even sole source of information about life in the U.S., you might naturally assume that the average American lives in a suburban palace or a beautiful apartment with views of the Brooklyn or Golden Gate Bridge.
As recounted here, the real-life intrigue behind the bootleg videos is a neat précis of Eastern Bloc paranoia and corruption, with, almost inevitably, more than a dash of the absurd. Nistor was at her government job one day when a member of the secret police sidled up to her and muttered, “I heard you last night” — and left the comment hanging. Both Nistor and Zamfir suspected the other of being secret police; when Zamfir brought on a second dubber named Mircea to keep up with the workload, the new hire really was affiliated with the secret police. When a police crew came to raid Zamfir’s bootlegging headquarters one night, Mircea sent them away by uttering a single code word.
The unanswered question becomes to what extent Zamfir’s bootleg empire was unofficially tolerated. Zamfir found that he could bribe the secret police and officials with VHS tapes, because their wives and children wanted to see the movies; even Ceaușescu’s son tried to get tapes from him. Border guards preferred to line their pockets with good old hard currency. Money talks, in any system; bootleg tapes eventually made Zamfir so rich that no one could touch him.
The movie does have its flaws. It is smothered in score, just like a bad Hollywood release. More questionable, though, is Calugareanu’s choice of title.
Were Chuck Norris videos really more popular in the clandestine movie-watching circles of Bucharest or Timisoara than anything starring Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger, the reigning action heroes of the time? Of course, neither of those one-time titans has ironic currency among millennials, so perhaps the title is an understandable move on Calugareanu’s part.
Chuck Norris vs. Communism depicts a 20th-century, analog version of viral videos. This was media that evaded government censorship because it was too easy to copy, even in the form of clunky physical objects. Calugareanu’s documentary got me wondering if someday we’ll see a similar film about people in North Korea avidly consuming forbidden foreign media via VPNs or bootleg discs. Given how globalized entertainment has become, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that students in Pyongyang risk arrest not to access subversive political messages but to find out who got offed this week on Game of Thrones.