The “Voice” of Forbidden Films
A Brief Interview with Irina Margareta Nistor
The documentary Chuck Norris vs. Communism talks about the illegal introduction of Western films in Romania, acting as a respite during a time when people were going through a very difficult time. Do you think watching these forbidden films was just entertainment or did it mean much more than that?
Many of the people interviewed by the Romanian, London-based director Ilinca Călugăreanu during the making of the documentary witnessed that the films were definitely entertaining, especially when the Romanian Television only had two hours of broadcast a day on its single channel and everything was filled with [communist] ideology. But it seems the films had more than just pure entertainment function, they also offered some hope or at least allowed glimpses of the West into an Eastern European country that was completely cut off from the rest of the world. They generated fashion standards, offered architectural examples (recreated in houses and pools built after 1989 by people who could afford them), and possibly inspired, in a subliminal way, a desire for freedom.
Did you feel you were in danger while working on dubbing the films in the years before 1989?
I couldn’t really tell if I was in danger or not, something was always in the air. That’s how the system worked: it instilled fear. They could have taken steps and stopped us immediately, they knew exactly who I was (I worked at the National Television) and Mr. Zamfir, who managed this entire business, was also easy to keep under surveillance.
For those readers who are not familiar with the 80’s in Romania, we should mention that during those years there were power cuts, hot water was restricted, some basic foods were rationed and the TV program was limited to two hours a day, mostly propaganda. What do you recall from people’s comments at the time after watching movies featuring life beyond the Iron Curtain?
At the time people refrained from commenting, they were afraid and it was dangerous. Denunciators and informants [working for the secret police] were everywhere. But we now know from different remarks, even from the documentary, that people were amazed to see the cars, the abundance of goods in shops and noticed the contrast with every day life in Romania, which was filled with lack.
One of your roles when you worked at the National Television was to censor some scenes from foreign films approved for broadcast. What were the things mainly targeted and prevented from being seen on the TV screen?
My role did not include censorship of the scenes, it was executing what was requested during the screenings with the ideological committees. I had to make notes of what needed to disappear, and the technicians had to cut and then later replace certain scenes after the broadcast. The bothersome things had to do with the church and religion, sex (even though not very overt), extramarital affairs, old age (to avoid comparison to the ruling couple), prosperity (be it spacious houses or plentiful dinners), excessive alcohol consumption, which could be again interpreted as an allusion to the ruling family*…
What did this documentary mean for you, as a project that recreated the repressive atmosphere of the 80’s? Did you reevaluate the importance of that act of rebellion and the effect it had on numerous viewers of all ages?
Mostly I was flattered by the importance that people imparted to it, which I did not perceive as rebellion, but mostly an unexpected chance to watch films, and by the affection that viewers of very different generations still continue to have for me. Additionally, I could see what the all-night long serial watching of films meant for people. The remarkable recreation of the period with all its details was often surprising. I have to say that I wasn’t aware of what was going on at the time in blocks of flats all over the country and how serious the dependency on the forbidden cinema had become.
The documentary Chuck Norris vs Communism (UK/Romania/Germany), directed by Ilinca Calugareanu, produced by Mara Adina and Brett Ratner was screened at Sundance, Edinburgh, Los Angeles, Seattle, Anonimul Film Festivals and will start playing in Germany in November 2015.
*One of Ceaușescu’s sons, Nicușor, was known for his alcohol addiction. (T.N.)
Translated from the Romanian by Elena and Paul Richard.