Romania: becoming heroes

Yesterday we began discussing the documentary Chuck Norris vs. Communism, in which director Ilinca Calugareanu takes us back to 1980s Romania and the phenomenon of surreptitious private screenings at which ordinary Romanians got to see American films – and, through them, the Free World.

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In a re-creation from the documentary, Nistor is seen doing her secret dubbing

But the films didn’t just vouchsafe to Romanians their first look at the West. “The films changed what you thought,” says one of Calugareanu’s interviewees. “You developed through films.” The movies, we’re told, sowed “seeds of freedom.” One interlocutor remembers that after viewing one action film after another – starring actors like Chuck Norris, Sylvester Stallone, and Jean-Claude van Damme – “we started to want to be heroes.”

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Nicolae Ceaușescu

This is no small admission. These were people who’d been systematically beaten down by the Communist system. The word hero was flung at them constantly by their leaders – as we see in the documentary itself, in an excerpt from one televised speech by dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu – but it was invariably used to refer to so-called “socialist heroes,” people who’d submitted themselves heart and soul to the regime, who’d embraced their role as obedient mice, who’d parroted the totalitarian rhetoric (and, in many cases, ratted on their neighbors who didn’t). The bootleg Hollywood films restored to the Romanians who saw them the concept of heroism in its authentic sense – restored to them, that is, the notion that it was possible in this world to stand up for oneself, for one’s friends, and for goodness itself against the forces of evil and oppression. Nistor tells Calugareanu that since the liberation of Romania, people have told her that her very voice is linked in their minds with the idea of freedom and hope.

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Vaclav Havel

Like many a good Hollywood thriller, Calugareanu’s film actually contains a twist or two in its latter half. We’d rather not give away the surprises here. Suffice it to say that pretty much everybody in Romania, it turns out, up to and including people at the very highest levels of government, was eager to watch American movies. Which, in turn, underscores the fact that even top officials were, in a very real sense, prisoners of their own system. It’s not a fresh insight: Vaclav Havel, the Czech poet-turned-activist-turned-president, articulated it brilliantly in his famous essay “The Power of the Powerless.” Indeed this documentary, seen from one angle, is a confirmation of Havel’s own assertion in that essay that oppressed people in totalitarian countries are effectively collaborators in their own oppression and that they contain within themselves the power to overcome their own powerlessness. The Romanians who gathered in tiny apartments to watch those American movies were, in their own small way, defying authority – awakening in themselves the very spirit that Havel wrote about, and that would help to bring Ceaușescu down.

We’ll finish up on this tomorrow.

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