Sunday, April 24, 2016

Chuck Norris vs. Communism

by Drew Martin
Chuck Norris vs. Communism is a great Romanian documentary about the role illegal VHS video tapes had between 1985-1989 in the downfall of brutal communist regime of Romania when video players were hard to come by and cost as much as a car.

The video tapes were smuggled in often by bribing border guards, then illegally dubbed, copied, and distributed to individuals who would have secret screenings in their apartments.

The three people who had the most influence were 
Teodor Zamfir, the ring leader of the business, Irina Nistor a professional interpreter for the state television who illegally moonlighted in Zamfir's basement studio, and Micea Cojocaru another interpreter who also dubbed movies for Zamfir but turned out to be secret police - which actually saved Zamfir when his house was raided and he was able to whisper a special password to call them off.

The documentary is a mixture of reenactment and interviews with everyone from Nistor to the people who attended the apartment screenings. They recall the movies they watched and how much it changed their lives and empowered them to bring down the government. Nistor continued to do the dubbing even after things got dangerous for her because she said the films were her oxygen. And her fans appreciated her - they said that if they heard a film dubbed by Cojocaru or anyone else they considered it a rip off, and they fantasized about what she looked like. One older viewer described her voice as being shrill but at the same time pleasant and expressive, and that she went beyond the role of dubbing and really acted out the roles.

Most of the films they watched were American action films but they got much more out of them than the brawls and explosions. They understood the idea of fighting the bad guys and felt empowered. The younger people from the audience would go out in the street after the screenings and have a more "disciplined" way of playing - acting out scenes from Chuck Norris, Rocky, Rambo, Van Damme, and Bruce Lee films. They also watched films such as Dirty Dancing, Pretty Woman, and other lighthearted movies where everything had a different meaning for them - a typical shop scene would show the abundance of products in America, and common street scenes would show them cars they had never seen in person.

The censors who Nistor worked with at her dayjob with the state television axed everything for a range of reasons. The meat locker scene in Rocky displayed too much meat available for consumption, and a rabbit carrying red, yellow, and blue balloons in the Russian kids cartoon Nu, pogodi! was canned because those are the colors of the Romanian flag and they thought it might send a message that Russia had too much control of them.

By 1989 Nistor had dubbed more than 3,000 films. When Zamfir first asked her what pay she would require for each film, she suggested the amount it would cost to get a smuggled bar of Austrian chocolate. He doubled it. When people reflected on how it all happened, even despite all the bribes and payoffs to high-ranking officials, they suggested that in the end the video cassette seem so trivial that no one could image that it might actually contribute to the downfall of Nicolae Ceauşescu's regime.