In communist Romania, American movies were as illegal as heroin in the USA. Meanwhile, video-players cost as much as a new car. But as video technology crept across the country, Romanians were exposed to all manner of American entertainments. One man, 'Colonel' Zamfir, smuggled in tapes from a neighbouring country, and one woman, Irina Nistor, a translator on the National Television’s Censorship Committee, secretly dubbed them into her native tongue. She even did the voices of male actors like Chuck Norris.
Ilinca Calugareanu’s doc 'Chuck Norris vs Communism' is a genial and wide-eyed film about the clandestine collaboration between Nistor and Zamfir, who dubbed and distributed more than 3,000 films between 1985 and 1989. For Romanians, Nistor was the voice of freedom, introducing them to Rocky, the Terminator and everyone in between via her freeform translations, which were crudely recorded over the corresponding English dialogue.
The throngs of Romanians who illicitly gathered around their televisions were often more enamoured with the Western food and fashions on display than the plights of the characters she voiced. Many of those viewers appear in Calugareanu’s film, warmly reminiscing on the wonders that Irina brought into their lives, and the perversely charming consistency with which she did it. One older woman recounts how a bootleg copy of 'Last Tango in Paris' was the first movie she ever saw, which is a hell of a place to start.
Calugareanu realises that nostalgia can’t sustain an entire film, but 'Chuck Norris vs Communism' struggles to fill the void. Much of the movie is devoted to dramatic recreations of Nistor’s clandestine activities, Calugareanu depicting the unassuming government employees like they’re in an ’80s spy film. But while those sequences are richly cinematic, the suspense they generate proves counterintuitive and overwhelms the connection between Nistor’s work and the revolution it supposedly helped to stoke. In the end, Calugareanu overreaches by spuriously insisting that the bootlegs even sparked the demise of Romanian president Nicolae Ceausescu, who met a bloody end on Christmas Day 1989. Despite what her doc might tell you, it’s hard to believe that communism fell because of Chuck Norris.