In 1985 Nicolae Ceaușescu, the Romanian dictator, was in his twentieth year of Communist rule. The country was culturally isolated, all forms of external media choked off, and in a cost and energy-saving exercise Ceaușescu cut state TV from two channels to one, limiting broadcasting to two or three hours a day.
As in other Eastern Bloc countries, when life was curtailed illicit underground movements blossomed and flourished. Ilinc Calugareanu’s brilliant 80-minute documentary tells the story of one of the most pervasive forms of resistance for thousands of Romanians at that time: clandestine video nights. Twenty or thirty people would crowd into a single living room and watch dubbed copies of some of the finest ‘Western American Imperialist’ entertainment the period had to offer. Van Damme’s, Stallone’s and Chuck Norris’s back catalogue were endlessly consumed, as were iconic, decade-defining films like Dirty Dancing and Top Gun.
The idea for Calugareanu’s film was sparked while attending a London film festival: in a Q&A session, the woman in front of her asked a question. Calugareanu, born in Romania but now working in Britain, was instantly plunged back to her childhood in the 1980s by this distinctive female voice –which belonged to one Irina Nistor. Nistor was thevoice of video nights: she dubbed every part, played every character, killed every villain and got every man. It was at this moment Calugareanu realised she had a great subject for a film.
Calugareanu’s taut, intriguing and witty story has three main characters: the elusive Mr Zamfir – who single-handedly established a nationwide empire of illegal tape copying and dubbing; Irina Nistor, a state TV translator instructed to undertake the dubbing work for Mr Zamfir; and the men and women who spent their evenings watching these tapes. Nistor got on board immediately and needed no convincing to join Calugareanu’s project; in contrast Mr Zamfir took three years of persuading – we hear his voice throughout the film and finally get to see him on screen in the closing frames, Calugareanu seemingly giving him a plum cameo role in his own story.
Calugareanu has made a film about films and has mastered her craft – she studied filmmaking at Manchester’s Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology. A lot of the story is told through re-enactments, yet rather than resort to obvious, literal recreations with a voice over, she’s dramatized the action, as if making actual ‘movie’ scenes, and commissioned a sumptuous soundtrack especially for the project. The music, the actors, and the way the film’s shot imbue it with a cinematic quality, quite different from run-of-the-mill documentaries.
As well as recreating scenes, a lot of the film is dedicated to interviews with the men and women who participated in these furtive video nights. Calugareanu spent the first two years of her project doing research, locating as many of the old VHS tapes as she could find and interviewing hundreds of fellow Romanian video-goers. They give brilliantly candid accounts of their experiences and recollections – one man, much to the hilarity of his two friends, confesses that after watching Rocky, he set his alarm to go jogging at 5am, like Sylvester Stallone. He even tried to recreate Rocky’s raw-egg, post-workout protein shake.
The film obliquely underscores the isolation and impoverished state of Romania in its final decade of communism: “You stopped following the film because you’d be looking at the houses and the shops packed with food and sweets. You couldn’t believe how big the apartments were in America!”
There’s a sense of nostalgia, but Calugareanu has managed to strike a balance between the seriousness and darkness of the period, and the light-heartedness and humour of the events as those involved recall them. The film doesn’t claim these underground video clubs sparked or even contributed to the 1989 Revolution, but it does give a voice to people who lived through those times and illuminates what the evenings meant to them: “They fed our hope that things would change. And they did change.”
Chuck Norris vs. Communism will be screened at the Romanian Cultural Institute London on 11 November 2016, with special guest Irina Margareta Nistor. For the week’s other events featuring Ms.Nistor (on 12 & 13 November), and to book tickets, please click on the logo below.