Home > Film, History, Reviews > Film Review: Chuck Norris vs Communism

Film Review: Chuck Norris vs Communism

Chuck Norris vs Communism (2015; Directed by Ilinca Calugareanu)

This film’s title is both misleading and weirdly, belatedly appropriate. Chuck Norris vs Communism examines a fascinating underground cultural phenomenon in hyper-repressive 1980s Communist Romania: the smuggling into the country of bootleg VHS copies of Hollywood movies, which were clandestinely overdubbed with Romanian dialogue by a rogue state chucknorrisvscommunismcensorship board translator and then distributed and screened illegally by citizens desperate for even the slightest glimpse of life in the capitalist West.

This documentary tracks the undercover Cold War spy story of the translation dubber, Irina Nistor, as well as the shadowy colonel who ran (and grew wealthy) the black market distribution network. It also features interviews with ordinary Romanians, many of them part of Romania’s creative class in the post-Ceauçescu order of capitalist freedom, who fondly recall the Hollywood fantasies unveiled to their otherwise sheltered eyes in the clandestine screening parties held in nocturnal apartments. They also reminisce about the distinctive dubbing skills of Nistor, who would add inflection, emotion, and performance to translate the dialogue for her countryfolk. Her censor’s instincts would even win through when it came to cursing, which she would endearingly tone down.

If Chuck Norris vs Communism is to be taken at face value, it might be believed that bootleg Hollywood movies (often very bad ones) brought down at least one segment of the Iron Curtain. Although the film might overstate the political and historical importance of Romania’s VHS movie black market, it recognizes the central importance of cultural products in contemporary identity formation. Romania’s authoritarian state, nightmarish in many of its other oppressive policies, recognized this as well, hence the bans and the censorship when it came to entertainment product from the West (and sometimes even from the Soviet Union and other satellites). But it miscalculated the depth of the void in its citizens’ minds and aspirations that even the shlockiest of American B-movies would rush to fill.

This brings us to the title and its surprising paradigm of hope. Among the films that slipped into Romania were the low-budget Cannon Films action productions starring the hyper-manly bearded martial artist Chuck Norris. Now a literal punchline and a figure of ironic ridicule even in the 1980s, Norris represented something else entirely to some of director Ilinca Calugareanu’s interview subjects when they came across bootleg VHS tapes of his violent and putrid movies. They recount watching Norris absorb superhuman amounts of abuse and walk away, turn the tables on his torturers and tormentors when any reasonable man would have simply given up and expired. Outlandish as his triumphs of endurance seem to credulous audiences now (and likely even then), to Romanian watchers they represented a dream of resistance to inhuman oppression. Norris’ enemies bury him alive in his car, but he drives out of the hole to fight on. It’s B-movie shock shlock as a metaphor for outlasting tyranny, and it imbues the intriguing tale of the Cold War Romanian bootleg movie trade with added resonance.

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Categories: Film, History, Reviews
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