- Ethan Bergman
Chuck Norris Vs. Communism: Cassettes as weapons for Revolution
Updated: Nov 17, 2021
Chuck Norris Vs Communism (2015)
Director: Ilinca Calugareanu
This documentary thriller tells the story of the importance of Western movies in Communist Romania for its population and the ensuing Revolution in 1989.
Today, most of us in the Western world tend to complain about our lack of freedom and the culture of censorship. What most of us have not experienced however, is suppression of freedoms to the extent performed by former Communist states. The Soviet Union usually comes to mind when thinking of such repressive regimes. What is lesser known is the fact that the‘Socialist Republic of Romania’ was arguably equally repressive and brutal. From 1965to 1989, the Romanian population lived in an open-air prison whose government became increasingly focused on hard social control through secret agents, destroying the notion of personal privacy through wire-tapping, implementing censorship and fostering a cult of personality for the Romanian Head of State Nicolae Ceaușescu. The state made it punishable to have any personal, or materialistic, connection to the ‘imperialist West’.
Eventually, this era of suppression was terminated. The desired freedom of Romanians finally broke open the cracks in society. A violent revolution was orchestrated in 1989. The freedom envisioned by the oppressed civilians of the external world was illustrated which to them by none other than American icons such as Chuck Norris, Sylverster Stallone, Al Pacino and Arnold Schwarzenegger. It is obvious that these icons are no longer symbols of freedom in the West, but they did impact repressed societies nonetheless. How did Romanians get access to these types and how did their notion of freedom change to warrant a violent revolution?
In this documentary movie, the audience delves into the world of grey Communist Romania. A reality in which visual escapism was the only method to retain one’s sanity. In the latter half of the 1980’s, a smuggler found a lucrative, yet highly dangerous, method to earn money and survive under communism. The smuggler, Theodor Zamfir, managed to introduce more than 3000 Western movies to the Romanian population. When he started the concept in the simpler 1980’s however, he needed to find a translator who would dub from English to Romanian. His lucrative business took off when he met Irina Nestor, an English-speaking official working for the censorship bureau who henceforth recorded her voice-over in a basement in the middle of the night for the monetary equivalent of a ‘luxury’ chocolate bar. She ended up becoming one of the most famous voices in Romania, since she did the voice-over for every single actor, whilst Zamfir became one of the richest.
Once a Romanian-speaking voice-over was concluded, the cassettes would secretly be sold to a select few citizens who owned a TV back then. For the last few years of the regime, Romanians were secretly gathering by the dozens in front of tiny TV sets in cramped apartments. The legacy of this specific significance is beautifully told by Romanians of all ages and statuses in this documentary, by way of various testimonies and reenactments. The window to the West was opened and could not be closed, despite the secret police coming incredibly close to shutting down the illegal sale and consumption of these cassettes weeks before the Revolution.
The repressive nature of the regime became prominent whilst the people’s perseverance for freedom only grew in the latter years of the 1980’s. This was accommodated by the reality of the West constructed by Irina Nistor and buff American stars, who were great contributors to the Romanian Revolution of 1989. This movie is truly a great introduction for anyone who is clueless about Romanian history and enjoys the perspectives of individuals struggling to survive and strive for freedom in a world engulfed by escapism.
The famous notion that films bring joy and tranquility to its consumers is definitely felt in this documentary as it is shown that Romanians can take a break from the stress and chaos of suppressive life. In poetic fashion, these “trashy” action movies had an effect on Romanians due to their subplots, which often involved themes of romance, perseverance, good vs evil, class struggles, God and justice. Obviously, any form of media containing these features were already banned under the Romanian regime as it would destroy the foundation of their lies. Meaning, that the state was absolute and determined most to all aspects of one’s life.
Throughout the documentary, one of my favorite moments would be to examine the way in which a witness recalls the late 1980’s and the effect the movies had on them. The sprinkle and joy in their eyes as they describe iconic scenes from cliché action movies, revealing the admiration and idolization of what the protagonists stood for. In most cases, that would involve most to all aforementioned banned notions. The thrill of doing “uncommunist actions” is what hooked people into enjoying the banned movies, yet, the concepts from those movies is what kept citizens engaged and observant for months and years to come. It would not have been an odd sight to witness a room filled with tense political and societal discussions after a screening of “Rocky”. The children, however, were often seen reenacting action scenes with their friends on the desolate streets of Bucharest, believing themselves to be heroes.
Chuck Norris Vs. Communism is as much a political/historical tale as it is a personal tale, filled with emotions and elements reminiscent of the illegal movies, such as perseverance. Romanians became heroes in their own movies after concluding that escapism is not a permanent solution, leading to the revolts.
To view this documentary, you can navigate to Amazon Prime, PBS, Vimeo on Demand and HBO GO. For more details regarding the documentary itself, navigate to its website.