Chuck Norris vs Communism, a Documentary about Freedom
In mid-1980s communist Romania, under the noses of Nicolae Ceausescu’s secret police, hundreds of VHS tapes of American blockbuster movies were trafficked into the country. The smuggled films – mostly consisting of martial arts, horror and action thrillers – were dubbed and distributed through an underground black-market. The films were dubbed by one courageous female translator whose distinct voice captivated the whole nation and became a symbol of freedom.
Culturally isolated, ideologically censored; all images of life outside the Iron Curtain are cut off and TV is reduced to a couple of hours of propaganda bulletins each day. From the drab concrete housing blocks to the food ration queues, an overwhelming fear of state surveillance had prevented the people from stepping out of line. But there was one window into the free world available to anyone who dared to look.
The fearless stories of action heroes like Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme captured every child’s imagination, but it was the lavish settings and backdrops that mesmerised this unique audience. For the first time people saw what had been denied to them: supermarkets stacked full of food, the trappings of wealth, the latest fashions, super cars, and most of all, freedom.
The atmosphere was filled with danger and suspicion, especially when the regime started clamping down on the secret screenings. Video players were confiscated, and organisers of the viewings were called in for questioning. It seemed as if it was only a matter of time before the State would stamp out the operation altogether.
The context in which these Western films were seen made them revolutionary, despite their content often seeming to be the opposite. In an oppressive regime, cinema nurtured freedom, democracy and choice. As one interviewee who was at the forefront of the 1989 revolution says: “The tapes were part of our silent resistance. They fed our hope that things will change and they did change!”
From an interview with director Ilinca Calugareanu and producer Mara Adina:
Ilinca Calugareanu: […] For us, this film is about the magic of film and the power it has to change our lives. One of the biggest threads for me is about the shared experience of watching films in a dangerous and underground space.
Movies meant so much more to the people in this film; it was a completely different viewing experience than the one we can relate to today. It is about the way films leave a mark on your life to the point of being able to taste that experience, even after decades have passed.”
Mara Adina: We wanted to make something captivating and entertaining, and in doing so, make a topic that is often depicted in quite a dark manner accessible for Western audiences.
“Stylish, breezily entertaining documentary explores the little-known role played by Hollywood movies – and one heroic film dubber – in toppling Romanian communism.”
– Scott Foundas, Variety
“To those under Ceausescu’s regime, Western film was a portal and an escape, in a way that was less about exoticism and fantasy and more about getting a glimpse into a looser political climate, a place where pop culture and commerce flowed freely and hand-in-hand.”
– An Banh, Indiewire
“For many Romanians, the documentary will be a cinematic madeleine. Wry, understated comedy will make cinemagoers smile just seconds before a tear begins to well up in the corner of their eye, produced by the nostalgic memory of the feeling of being innocent kids realising, by watching both classic films and outrageously over-the-top B-movies, that the world is bigger, more colourful and more alive than the reality surrounding them.”
– Stefan Dobroiu, Cineuropa
Chuck Norris vs Communism (2015, UK/Romania/Germany)
- Production company: Vernon Films, Passion Pictures, Ratpac Documentary Films, Impact Partners, HBO Romania, WDR, Arte Present
- Director: Ilinca Calugareanu
- Producers: Mara Adina, Brett Ratner
- Executive producers: John Battsek, Dan Cogan, Hanka Kastelicová, Jenny Raskin, Nicole Stott
- Director of photography: Jose Ruiz
- Editor: Per K. Kirkegaard
- Music: Anne Nikitin, Rob Manning
- With: Irina Nistor, Teodor Zamfir, Mircea Cojocaru, Vlad Craioveanu, Mihai Debrovolschi, Adrian Sitaru, Paul Stefanescu, Alexandru Eremia, Dan Alexandru, Mihnea Mihalache-Fiastru, Mariana Comanaru, Voichita Toader, Tudor Caranfil, Marius Lazar, Constantin Fugasin, Ioan Gyuri Pascu, Silviu Prigoana
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