Movies really do change the world in Ilinca Calugareanu‘s Chuck Norris Vs. Communism, a we-were-there account of how bootlegs of Hollywood movies inspired citizens of Ceausescu‘s Romania to dream of life beyond the Iron Curtain and, eventually, rise up for it. The film’s message is a flattering one for an industry audience, even if many Sundancers would rather distance themselves from the lowest-common-denominator fare celebrated here. But Calugareanu’s presentation, which evocatively braids reenacted storylines with present-day interviews, is skillful enough to win over viewers with no professional investment in cultural imperialism. While the focus on Romania may sound limiting, the film’s narrative is broadly applicable and entertainingly told; it should fare well in the nonfiction marketplace.
If not for commercial considerations, the doc should really be titled Irina Nistor vs. Communism, as we quickly learn that this young woman’s voice was synonymous throughout Romania with American movies. Though she worked during the day as a translator in a censor’s office, Nistor’s passion was her secret job, doing real-time dubbing for entrepreneur Teodor Zamfir, who smuggled movies across the border from Hungary. Translating seven, sometimes as many as 10 movies in a row from English into Romanian, she dubbed all the film’s characters (male and female) in a thin, high voice. Calugareanu’s interviewees laughingly recall the euphemisms she’d use for profanity or sex talk (we see some hilarious examples), but their fondness for a woman they never got to see is clear.
The film cannily withholds Nistor and Zamfir from us (along with Mircea Cojocaru, a backup translator), using only their voices to narrate dramatic reenactments. We watch Zamfir bribe border guards, see an operation where more than three hundred VHS decks duplicated tapes at a time, and go nervously with Irina to her day job, where officials hinted they knew what she was up to.
Reenactments also take us to the jam-packed living rooms where illicit “video nights” were held. A VCR could cost as much as a new car, but by charging admission one could make the equivalent of a month and a half’s salary in a single night, showing everything from Van Damme programmers to Purple Rain to friends and neighbors. Subjects who were kids at the time recall the thrill of the forbidden, in which even a distributor’s animated logo was treasured. These interviewees aren’t identified until the end credits, with public figures like actor Constantin Fugasin contributing alongside unknown citizens. The result is a warmly communal feeling, offering the pleasure of being in on something the elite knew nothing about. (In fact, government officials were big customers of bootleg tapes as well. Some here suggest they let the smuggling continue because they thought they were the only ones getting movies.)
Evangelists don’t tend to be a community’s most subtle people, so it’s fitting that American mores were brought to Romania via jingoistic action films and romantic fantasies. Calugareanu’s choice of clips helps us see these films through other eyes: The sight of skyscrapers, buffet tables full of food and sports cars could, for these deprived audiences, be as inspiring as the action itself. Sure, a thoughtful American in the 1980s might have chosen more nuanced dramas to represent what the nation was about. But as today’s Romanian cinema shows, these nascent film buffs arrived at their own brand of sophistication once they had a little freedom of choice.
Production company: Vernon Films
Director: Ilinca Calugareanu
Producers: Mara Adina, Brett Ratner
Executive producers: John Battsek, Dan Cogan, Hanka Kastelicová, Jenny Raskin, Nicole Stott
Director of photography: Jose Ruiz
Editor: Per K. Kirkegaard
Music: Anne Nitikin, Rob Manning
Sales: Rena Ronson, UTA
No rating, 83 minutes