London, United Kingdom (openDemocracy) – “Chuck Norris vs. Communism” was screened at London’s Somerset House this week, as part of the Unorthodocs programme. The documentary, by Romanian filmmaker and editor Ilinca Calugareanu, investigates how Romanians in the ‘80s were given their first snapshot of modern-day America, enemy of the Communist state, via black-market Hollywood blockbusters. It follows the story of state translator Irina, who is scouted by the faceless Zamfir to dub illegal VHS tapes for sale to the curious, the brave, and those able to get their hands on VCRs. (Zamfir’s job remains a mystery until the end of the film when his security service connections are revealed.)
These people would then host private ‘screenings’ of Rocky or The Delta Force, introducing a whole generation of Romanians to American cinema. The documentary claims that these illicit private screenings “sparked a revolution” from Romanian living rooms. It’s a big claim.
Twenty-five years after the Iron Curtain fell, a wave of post-communist nostalgia amongst the older generations of Eastern Europe, teamed with a keen interest among the younger generation, has given rise to documentaries, TV shows and films trying to address anew the question, ‘what was life like under communism’? Oral testimony, as used overwhelmingly in “Chuck Norris vs. Communism”, is vital to get information about former communist states as the security services had such control that private letters and diaries are few and far between. It is important that people like Calugareanu start to record these testimonies and make them available.
The film brings us straight into the lives of very ordinary people as they laugh together about their ‘movie nights’, clearly enjoying the opportunity to talk about their experiences and reminisce with affection about the ‘good times’ they had under communism. As one interviewee says, the movie nights were a way to ‘spite the regime’ in a non-confrontational way, and we see how important these gathering were to forming relationships. It gave a grim society a space to relax and forget about food queues and a diet of state-controlled TV. The reconstructions show us vividly what living in ‘80s Romania was like: the grey panel blocks, the living rooms with acrylic carpets and net curtains, the improvisation of the home cinema with benches, stools and easy chairs. There was of course a darker side: the film-lovers could easily be betrayed to the security services. We hear from one interviewee who escaped with a light punishment of having his VHS equipment confiscated, but people were well aware that being caught could result in a prison sentence.
“Chuck Norris vs. Communism” translates this mixture of buoyant community spirit with an ever-present fear of surveillance, but it is the humour and warmth that stops the film from being dull. We see teenage boys emulating Rocky’s training regime on grim Soviet-style housing estates. We get to know the translator, Irina, who replaces all swear words with her own prim versions, so the audiences are unwittingly innocent when confronted with Hollywood norms of sex and violence.
Is this ‘communist nostalgia’? The film certainly avoids some difficult questions. Most glaringly, it is not explicit enough for an audience who may not understand the functions of the secret police and its relationship with the black market. While it is made clear that Zamfir is connected to the security services, the subject of the actual functioning of his business and who else was involved is never broached. This seems odd, as it is perhaps the most interesting twist in the story.
Calugareanu focuses on one phenomenon, which was part of a wider thirst for knowledge about the West. The film’s portrayal of the role of VHS in “sparking a revolution” seems out of proportion to the enormity of the violent downfall of the Romanian communist leader, Nicolae Ceaușescu. The documentary does not talk about Western tourism to Romania’s beaches, radio free Europe or the BBC world service or people’s visits to neighbouring countries like Yugoslavia with more liberal regimes, all of which were happening by the ‘80s.
The Unorthodocs programme, which runs to the end of March, is showing six award-winning films that never made it onto British TV and asking why. The distribution rights for “Chuck Norris vs Communism” were bought by Netflix – why not by a UK broadcasting channel? In the following Q&A, Calugareanu was quite clear about this: Netflix has the widest possible audience for this kind of film. The American multi-national has invested heavily in its documentary library over the last few years and its subscribers have come to know and expect quality new films. There’s an argument that documentaries work best on services like Netflix, as opposed to aiming for a one-off viewing on TV in British sitting rooms. The young people interested in what was happening behind the Iron Curtain can watch the film from many different countries, via their TVs, laptops or whichever screen they choose.
If you don’t know anything about Eastern Europe under communism, “Chuck Norris vs. Communism” will be an amusing curiosity but will not give you much information. It leaps from Romanians seeing snippets of ‘Western life’ to the bloody uprising in Romania of 1989. What the documentary does do well is open up everyday life in communist Romania: one of the most secretive and oppressive of all the communist regimes. Hopefully this documentary will inspire others to make use of similar oral histories, giving old and new audiences more insight into what ordinary life was really like.
This report prepared by ALICE NICOLOV for openDemocracy.