Our topic this week has been Ilinca Calugareanu’s extraordinary documentary Chuck Norris vs. Communism. The film takes us back to Communist Romania in the 1980s, when ordinary people gathered secretly to watch Hollywood movies – and thus got their first precious glimpses of life under freedom.
In an interview with PBS, Calugareanu, who herself attended these group screenings as a kid, described her film as telling a story “that the world needed to hear, a story filled with joy and magic from a part of the world that most film audiences don’t know much about.” She’s right. In another interview, at a Toronto film festival, she recalls that when she was a child and walked into a group screening and saw the TV set and VCR, the thrill was palpable – you felt as if “you could almost touch freedom and the West.” People who have lived their entire lives in freedom need to be reminded how precious that gift is. To viewers who do appreciate their freedom, this documentary will be a deeply moving experience.
Unfortunately, many Western film critics don’t belong to that category of viewers. It doesn’t help that they are so contemptuous of the action vehicles starring actors like Sly Stallone and Chuck Norris that they can’t bring themselves to even try to appreciate what such fare meant to people living under totalitarianism. One such critic is Scott Foundas, who, reviewing the documentary last year in Variety, actually described it as a “breezily entertaining bonbon” – which is just this side of calling Schindler’s List a “fun romp” or Shoah a “great date film.” To be sure, Foundas was on-point when he compared Zamfir to a Graham Greene character and when he praised Calugareanu for giving her picture “the flair of a good espionage yarn.” And at least he treated the documentary and its mission with a degree of respect, acknowledging the importance of the fact that “the glimpses of the West and Western democracy afforded by American films…did much to counteract the influence of Ceausescu’s powerful propaganda machine.”
But then there’s John DeFore, who, writing in the Hollywood Reporter, sneered condescendingly about the “jingoistic action films and romantic fantasies” that worked magic on Romanian audiences. DeFore even managed to work into his review the term “cultural imperialism” – giving one the distinct impression that for him, what’s disturbing about Calugarean’s story is not the idea of people living under a real-life dictatorship that sought to brainwash and terrorize them 24/7 but the idea of them being ideologically influenced by such dreaded capitalism-promoting products as Top Gun and Pretty Woman.
Meanwhile, in the Guardian, Jordan Hoffman unhesitatingly panned Calugareanu’s documentary, complaining that it “says everything it needs to say in its first 15 minutes, and then just keeps rewinding the tape….While I’m sure the dissemination of black market tapes truly did have huge social repercussions, there’s a surprising ‘so what?’ effect after the 15th recollection of what it was like to watch Rambo.”
That Hoffman should respond so dismissively, so unfeelingly, to such an extraordinarily stirring chapter of modern history tells us a great deal about him. And it’s not pretty. All he succeeds in doing, in his small-minded piece, is to remind us that while there are men and women of remarkable courage in totalitarian countries who yearn for freedom and who strive to do their part to bring down tyranny, there are also pathetic characters in free countries who not only take their freedom for granted but who think it’s cool and chic to mock the very idea of yearning for freedom.
But what else can one expect from the Guardian?