In a stirring documentary called Chuck Norris vs. Communism, first screened last year at the Sundance Film Festival and now available on Netflix, director Ilinca Calugareanu tells the story of how bootleg Western movies, sold on the black market and shown on VHS in secret, illegal viewings in private homes across Romania in the 1980s, helped transform the mentality of a people living under the Communist regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu.
Calugareanu effectively combines beautifully directed historical re-creations with absorbing on-camera testimony by a couple of dozen or so Romanians who explain the impact that the movies had on them at a time when their own national TV service consisted of two hours a day of boring propaganda about the glory and triumph of socialism and when they were denied even the slightest glimpse of the world on the far side of the Iron Curtain. An older woman recalls that when she first saw Western movies, “I realized how far behind the West we were.” Another interviewee remembers, “We would all savor every image, even the credits at the beginning of the film.”
Indeed, the stories told by the Western movies often took a back seat to the settings, the backgrounds. For the first time, Romanians could see the streets of New York and Paris. The actors’ “clothes, the attitudes, the gestures” communicated oodles of information that couldn’t be put into words. “You’d stop following the movies,” recalls one man, “because you were impressed by the houses.” You’d see “cars that you’d never see here.” The pictures provided “a window into the west through which I could see what the free world was like.” And every bit of it was fascinating to the viewers: “people had a strong desire to know, to learn about a society that was forbidden.”
Few Romanians knew how the bootleg tapes had found their way into Romania. All they knew was that they’d had been smuggled in illegally – and that it was illegal to watch them. What we learn from Calugareanu is that the whole operation was the work of a single remarkable man named Zamfir. Starting with a couple of VCRs, he ended up with 360. Two or three times a year, he’d drive abroad and come back with a trunk full of new films. To get away with it, he bribed border guards. Eventually he developed a network that distributed tapes throughout the country.
Zamfir’s main helpmeet was a woman named Irina Nistor, whose story is also remarkable. She was working as a translator for the official government censors when Zamfir approached her: would she be willing to take on an evening job dubbing foreign movies for him? She leapt at the chance. She was risking prison – but she was curious to see the films herself. “It seemed,” she tells Calugareanu, “like a way to be free and spite the regime.”
So while continuing to work with Ceaușescu’s censors during the day, she also secretly collaborated with Zamfir, going to his home night after night to sit at a desk, watch movies on a TV screen, translate the dialogue in real time, and dub all the actors’ voices into a microphone, trying her best not only to render the words correctly into Romanian but also to convey the tone, the feeling, the mood. Even after being called on the carpet by an official of the secret police, she refused to quit. “The films were my oxygen.” Simultaneous translators at the UN generally work for only fifteen minutes or so at a time, so exhausting is the job; Nistor could dub a half dozen or more films in a single sitting. By 1989, when Communism fell, she had dubbed more than 3000 of them. As a result of her work, Nistor’s voice became, after Ceaușescu’s, the second most familiar in all of Romania.