In terms of gaining people’s interest, Chuck Norris vs Communism was the clear winner at this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival, based on its title alone. It’s a documentary is about the distribution of VHS copies of Western films into Communist Romania in the 80s, a repressive Stalinist regime ruled by Nicolae Ceausescu. But also it’s about the importance of films, conveying their impact and intangible magic against the backdrop of varying sizes of revolution. This isn’t just a movie that is illuminating for people outside Romania, it has apparently answered Romanians’ long-asked questions about people who were deemed semi-legendary.
The approach writer/director Ilinca Calugareanu takes is to interview people who illicitly watched these videos in makeshift home cinemas, and weave their memories into a dramatisation of how these tiny acts of rebellion came about, structuring things so it builds up to a big laugh and then undercuts it with a dose of the oppressive reality of Ceausescu’s Romania. This shift in dynamics is used sparingly but it’s incredibly effective.
Two major figures stand out in this story: Teodor Zamfir, who started illegally importing Western films into Romania (purely to make money, at least initially) and Irina Nistor, who translated the films into Romanian and remains a hugely influential figure in the country. As a translator for the state television company (which broadcast for two hours a day), she was contacted and set to work watching and translating between six to ten films a night, ultimately translating over 3000 films. She says she did it primarily because she loved movies, and it only became an act of rebellion later on, such as when she became aware that the Secret Police knew of her involvement. Zamfir, on the other hand, displayed amazing business acumen and fearlessness in keeping the authorities off his back.
What the film gets across better than anything is the wide-eyed enthusiasm that these films produced in the young, film-starved audiences. Not to criticise any of the writers on this site, but we’re never going to be able to convey the same sense of wonder over seeing Chuck Norris fighting a rat in Missing In Action 2, because it seems doubtful any of us could muster the same level of reverence, even if we recognise the reactions as similar to our own.
It’s not merely the near mythical heroism of action stars that made an impact: the amount of food in shops (Romania experienced shortages in the 80s due to rationing and austerity policies), the sheen of American city buildings contrasting with the Brutalist architecture behind the Iron Curtain. Chuck Norris and Rocky occur as frequent touchstones and heroic influences, but films such as Jesus Of Nazareth were also big deals due to the state oppression religion in a strongly Orthodox country.
By using dramatisation as well as talking heads , Calugareanu is able to build up tension and drop in some cathartic reveals. The film stock, costumes and locations give it a period feel, and the impression that this could work as a straight drama. This would lose the personal element the talking heads supply, however. This is a story that it’s easy to invest in, and as well as being informative it’s also a demonstration of the power of film. People talking of their first film and the pleasure it gave them to be taking back some small amount of power make this a potent and uplifting piece, even if it is set against a backdrop of oppression and morally ambiguous characters (which seems like a good time to mention it’s produced by Brett Ratner). This compliments the focal point of Chuck Norris well – even if Norris isn’t mentioned as much as the title implies – with people focusing on idealised cinematic versions of real people whose actual ideals don’t necessarily match up.
If the film has a failing, it’s in its claims that these films helped ferment the Romanian Revolution of 1989, but not actually showing any explicit evidence that this is the case. In its second half especially the viewer is occasionally left to extrapolate a bigger picture, which works for the most part but feels problematic when it undercuts one of the main aspects of the documentary’s conclusion.
Even so, if you’ve read this review suckered in by the title, it’s worth investigating this documentary in September when it comes out in the UK. It’s a different but complementary perspective on the films we love and, in many cases, grew up with, as well as a social history lesson you’re unlikely to be familiar with.
Chuck Norris vs Communism played at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.