Documentaries about dictatorships are usually renowned for their grimness. And that’s probably why Chuck Norris vs Communism, director Ilinca Calugareany’s feature length extension of her 2014 short, VHS vs Communism, feels so singular. Imagine that, fighting an oppressive government by watching 80s action flicks.
We’re in Romania, 1985. Nicolau Ceausescu’s dictatorship is controlling all media. Imperialist films are forbidden. TV only broadcasts two hours per day, and even then it is, of course, government propaganda. In the box-style apartment complexes, a whisper: ‘Movie night tonight! Are you coming?’ And so Romanians gathered around a illegally smuggled German VCR, watching bad copies of Rambo, Dirty Dancing, Once Upon a Time in America and many more, both great, bad and cult. These forbidden tapes came from the hands of Teodor Zamfir, a cross between a Cultural Guardian Angel a devilish Mafia type. And while Zamfir crosses the border in his tiny car, to collect and deliver dreams of a free market in magnetic tape, in his basement Irina Nistor, the single dubbing voice of all his films, watches and translates into the microphone.
It may overstate the actual importance of illegal videotapes in the fall of the Romanian dictatorship, but Chuck Norris vs Communism is still a cinephile delight. The idea of films as the only window to an outsider world is not new (think of The Wolfpack, for example) but to have it in a factual documentary gives it a special flavour. The choice of having Nistor as a voice over throughout the film, adding to her myth and fueling the mystery about what she really looks like, is nothing short of genius. Her perspective on what happened – why she decided to do it (to be free and spite the regime) goes hand in hand with Zemfir’s philosophy (people need stories, no?) and the dramatic reconstructions of the events they both experienced (including a comical “you’re a secret agent/no, you are a secret agent” moment) fits perfectly with the rest of the interviews . These, mostly from people that were children at the time, are not your usual talking heads – you can see their eyes shining with excitement, remembering the adventures of Chuck Norris, Van Damme and all the other capitalist poster boys.
It’s a simple story of David against Goliath, helped by dramatic reconstructions and a well-thought story structure – it may not be The Act of Killing (against which we’re forced to judge all new documentaries) but for an historical documentary about a time and situation that has been explored ad nauseam, its unusual angle and tone make it enthralling. Almost as good as that scene, the one where Chuck Norris is buried with his car, and then…
Chuck Norris Vs Communism screens at the Flatpack Film Festival in Birmingham on Sunday 24th April. For more information, please check the festival’s website – http://flatpackfestival.org.uk/