Director: Ilinca Calugareanu
Screenplay: Ilinca Calugareanu
Starring: Irina Margareta Nistor, Ana Maria Moldovan, Dan Chiorean
Country: UK, Romania, Germany
Running Time: 78 min
BBFC Certificate: TBC
Chuck Norris vs Communism is the perfect companion piece to a documentary I reviewed only a few weeks ago, Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films. Whereas the latter revelled in poking fun at the low budget trashy output of Cannon Films in the 80's, the documentary I'm reviewing here shows how some of those films and other similar titles from the era helped inspire a revolution.
Romania fell under Communist rule after WWII. In 1965 Nicolae Ceaușescu came to power and remained the party's leader for almost 25 years, developing an autocratic control over the people. As Romania moved into the 1980's, its foreign debt hit an incredible $10 billion and Ceaușescu pushed forward extreme austerity measures that shattered the economy and impoverished the population (the Conservatives in the UK should take note of that). In a desperate bid to keep the public on his side, he imposed a nationwide cult of personality - using propaganda and mass media to create an idealised, heroic depiction of himself.
Part of this process, alongside Ceaușescu's general tight grip on the population, involved extreme censorship. The national television network was stripped down to just one channel, showing only two hours of content a day (all strictly positive towards the country and Ceaușescu). Films were practically banned, particularly those from outside Romania (I believe a few select titles which promoted the right values were allowed to be shown if they passed the strict censors). Whilst the rest of the world was enjoying the VHS boom, video players/recorders couldn't be purchased in the country and the public were forbidden to enjoy the cascade of blockbusters coming out of Hollywood at the time.
Chuck Norris vs Communism tells the story of two people who dared to stand up against the regime and bring the magic of films to an oppressed public. Teodor Zamfir ran what seemed to be the country's only black market video outfit and enlisted a translator working for the censorship division, Irina Nistor, to overdub translated dialogue onto almost every film they released, which reached the thousands by the end. The films most fondly remembered by those who watched the tapes at secret video nights were the sort of cheesy fare we don't take so seriously (Chuck Norris movies and the Rocky franchise for instance), but to the Romanian people they opened up the possibility of being a hero and living happily ever after in wealth and prosperity. By the end of the decade the people overthrew their leader in a violent revolution and the country became a democracy. The extent to which this underground video movement contributed towards this is debatable, but this documentary makes a good case for it.
If I've spent more time describing the story behind the film than usual, it's because, like many documentaries, the story being told its greatest strength. Most of what I've described above is told in the first ten minutes or so and there isn't a huge amount else left to what actually happened. Instead, writer/director Ilinca Calugareanu delves into how the films affected the public, interviewing a number of Romanians that remember the period and took part in the video nights. We also hear from Nistor, discovering more about the work she did and why she did it, as well as contributions from Zamfir, although he's largely an enigma for much of the film. These testaments really get across the oppression the people were under and their desire for freedom and a better way of life. The circumstances and methods used to produce the pirated video copies are eye opening too.
Many of the restrictions placed upon the Romanian people had me shaking my head in disbelief. On top of the interviews, the film is mostly made up of reconstructions of Nistor and Zamfir's work and scenes of people gathering to secretly watch the videos. I found the sequences depicting Nistor's work with the censorship board particularly unbelievable. The most minor reasons would cause the censors to cut scenes or disallow films completely, such as a breakfast scene having too much food on the table or a cartoon having a character carrying some balloons coloured by those of the flag. It seems ridiculous to someone who's lived in relative freedom all their lives, but of course things like this happen all over the world, which is a frightening thought.
Away from the fascinating subject matter, the film is very well put together. The interviews look slick and the reconstructions are incredibly cinematic, being moodily shot and complemented by a full score. This cinematic style is not just mirrored in the look and sound of the film, there is even an exciting twist in the tale towards the end. You could say the documentary is quite overdramatic perhaps, but this fits the style of the films they were watching and championing, so feels appropriate. With many documentaries trying to mimic fiction films in style and presentation, it's refreshing to see one that fully justifies the approach.
Despite the title sounding like a rather silly action spoof or nostalgia piece, Chuck Norris vs Communism is a stirring and fascinating testament to the power of film and the senselessness of censorship and repression. At a lean 78 minutes it tells its story and gets its message across efficiently and never lags. It's a tale that deserves to be told too and shows that even the most commercial forms of art can still have the power to inspire and transcend their medium.
Chuck Norris vs Communism will have its European Premiere of at the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2015 on 24th June after its World Premiere at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year featuring in the World Cinema Documentary Competition section and following a slew of highly regarded film festivals.