J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Sundance ’15: Chuck Norris vs. Communism

Irina Nistor was the voice of the Romanian revolution. The brawn was supplied by Chuck Norris, Sylvester Stallone, and the rest of their 1980s action movie colleagues. Together they were an unbeatable combination—just ask Ceauşescu. Oh, but you can’t. Wildly popular but strictly forbidden, American action movies (thousands of which were dubbed by Nistor) directly undermined the Communist regime, as Ilinca Calugareanu chronicles in Chuck Norris vs. Communism, a World Cinema Documentary Competition selection at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

Just when you thought films like Missing in Action couldn’t get any cooler, Calugareanu’s documentary comes around. Ceauşescu kept Romania even more isolated than the rest of the Warsaw Pact nations and his censors were relentlessly thorough—to an almost comical extent. As a result, Nistor was pretty disgusted with her work translating for the censorship authorities, so she jumped at the chance to dub illegal American VHS tapes, often mastered from second or third generation copies, regardless of the risks.

Her boss was the mysterious Theodor Zamfir, who identified an unmet demand and spread around enough bribes to keep the tapes flowing. Of course, there were still dangers, especially for Nistor working in the lair of the beast. Fortunately, many high ranking Party members were also hooked on Zamfir’s tapes, because what else would they watch?

As films go, Chuck just about has it all. It is an inspiring story of courage and defiance in the face of oppression that takes some truly ironic twists and turns. It celebrates free expression, while also serving up a healthy dose of pop culture nostalgia. It is strange to think Romanians were watching kick butt Cannon films on VHS at the same time we were, but they were risking imprisonment and who knows what else by doing so.

We do hear from the real life Nistor and Zamfir, but the film is also interspersed with interviews featuring former customers, who really sound a lot like us or our friends at Unseen Films. In a potentially risky move, Calugaranu utilizes extensive dramatic recreations that make it a bit confusing when the actual historical figures finally appear on screen. However, they convey a vivid sense of the era and the paranoia that went with it.

Nistor and her associates were true heroes who made the world a better place, both in the short term and the long term. While the film is wildly inspiring, it also makes you wonder if the films produced in this day and age would have the same efficacy undercutting repressive regimes. Regardless, the fascinating and wholly entertaining Chuck Norris vs. Communism is very highly recommended when it screens again tomorrow (1/27) in Salt Lake and Thursday (1/29) and Friday (1/30) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance.

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