“We don’t have a choice now.”
— Colonel Braddock (Chuck Norris), Missing in Action (1984)
“It was a little like being hit over the head,” remembers Voichita. “I didn’t imagine a film like that could exist.” It was Last Tango in Paris, and it was the first movie she saw on videotape, in Romania, in the mid-’80s. As she and her friend Mariana think back, the scene cuts to Last Tango in Paris, Marlon Brando bathing Maria Schneider, pushing her head under water, the fictional lovers’ laughter echoing that of the two friends. A third scene cuts in, the camera panning a collection of faces in flickering light, a reenactment of that first experience, watching a videotape in a dark apartment. “I felt like I was struck by lightning!” Voichita exclaims. “That’s when I realized how far behind the West we were.”
The moment perfectly exemplifies the method of Chuck Norris vs Communism, Ilinca Calugareanu’s documentary about the transformation of a population by movies. Now available on Independent Lens online, the film looks back on life during Nicolae Ceaușescu’s regime, using a combination of commercial videos, talking heads, and reenactments, cleverly intertwined to show how all shape each other.
During the regime, from 1967-1989, it was hard to see beyond some acutely limited horizons. For many who lived through that period, those horizons were visible on TV, in particular, as the film lays out, in black and white state-sponsored programming. As the documentary illustrates, the camera pulling out from a tiny, old monitor at the back of the frame, this programming featured speeches by the Communist dictator, proclaiming the end of capitalism in Romania. That end meant the end of TV. Mikai recalls the day that “television went from two channels to one, with only two hours of TV a day.” It didn’t mean the end of the desire for TV, though, and so people came up with ways to see it anyway.
Teodor Zamfir, the film narrates, began importing VHS tapes illegally in the ’80s, deftly managing an underground marketplace and deflecting official efforts to shut him down. Marius remembers, “They were using fear, the psychosis of surveillance which made people both anxious of their own behavior and suspicious of others and made them inform on each other.” The film offers up reenactments of life in an oppressive state that mimic the movies Zamfir brought in, all mobile frames and dark croners and suspenseful music. Some interviewees guess at how Zamfir did it, how he kept authorities at bay, set up “arrangements with border patrol” or otherwise kept the business afloat; they speculate that he must have swung deals with authorities, who made money off this most popular of illicit activities.
“Even these powerful men were manipulated by the needs of their wives and children,” observes Zamfir as he describes, somewhat cryptically, his relationship with at least one member of the secret police force. They didn’t realize that they betrayed their communist ethics by taking films from me.” (Or, they did realize, but weren’t so committed to such “ethics” as they professed in public.) If Zamfir’s clandestine business keeps him — or his reenactor, dressed in a dapper white suit — in shadows throughout the film, his primary translator, Irina Nistor, who worked on some 3,000 tapes, appears more frequently, describing her reasons for doing the work.
Her reenactor first appears as if in a thriller, making her way in a long hallway to her first meeting with Zamfir in his office. A translator for state television, she says she didn’t “fit in there”; she felt she was asked to engage in “censorship”. She found a mission in doing all the voices for the pirate VHS tapes. Her voice became legendary.
The film illustrates this magic beautifully, with layers of sound and image: as you watch Brooke Shields in The Blue Lagoon, seduced by and seducing Christopher Atkins (“But you’re sticky!”), or as you see Ripley in Alien, you hear both Sigourney Weaver and irina’s voices, two effects that could not be more different in tone or timbre. Cut to her fans, recalling how they were enraptured: “I don’t think she had a body,” says Mihai. “She was pure consciousness.” Julia Roberts appears in the dress sop in Pretty Woman, her hat wide and her dress whiter than white. “I imagined her dubbing films in the kitchen,” smiles Vlad, “making soup.”
Multiple fantasies turned into multiple dreams: unable to find food to eat, working long hours for precious little compensation, living in cramped, cold quarters, Romanians sought hope. Some interview subjects say that men attended “video nights” in search of information about the world, about Paris and New York and cars (“There was no way a Lamborghini would ever get into Romania!”). Kids loved the action and women (reportedly) watched for the latest news in Western fashion.
All were transformed, sometimes struggling through the horrible soundtracks and damaged images of tapes that had been duplicated a few two many times. Still, they found in Rambo and Chuck Norris heroes of remarkable courage, models for resistance, for beating odds and triumphing over adversity.
Mihai remembers the scene in Missing in Action when Norris is captured (by “gooks”, he says, “That was the word Irina used”) and emerges from a tight spot not eaten by a rat but having eaten it. “The rat was dead and he spits it out!” The reveal remains vivid for several interviewee. Irina describes her own sense of rebellion, the importance of the work for her and her listeners, too. “I wasn’t required to censor everything,” she says “I could say ‘priest.'” Framed by a warpy, convex lens, she insists, “”It was a way to be free and to spite the regime, it was a way to win a battle, however small.” Looking back, she smiles, “It seems it made a difference.”
That difference was aspirational, certainly. “Those films were my oxygen,” says Irina, “The main thing was I could watch films and keep in touch with the world… It was like escaping from jail.” But it was also material, eventually. Lavinia insists, “The seeds of freedom were also planted by those video tapes,” as the film shows protestors in the street, news footage of the effects of watching “those video tapes”. The archival footage is inspiring, now, much as the fiction movies were inspiring, then.