Pirate tapes of the most popular American movies circulated in Romania throughout the Eighties, challenging the communist regime. Now, a film tells this story. OBC interviewed the director
This year, the Trieste Film Festival assigned the first "OBC Award" to the film "Chuck Norris vs. Communism" by Romanian Ilinca Călugăreanu. The motivation: "[the film] manages to impress the viewer with a very uncommon story on Ceaușescu's Romania. Alternating between fiction and documentary, the film amuses the audience by portraying the daily, heroic lives of ordinary people under the communist regime, still little known in the rest of the world".
The film tells how, since 1985, the import and illegal distribution of American movies contributed to the Westernisation of Romania. Teodor Zamfir would smuggle Hollywood blockbusters through Hungary and have them quickly translated and dubbed by Irina Nistor, who worked on national television and soon became a familiar voice for Romanians. The tapes were duplicated and circulated throughout Romania. In the so-called "video nights", households that owned a VCR would summon the neighbours. Nistor dubbed about 3,000 feature films until 1989, while Zamfir became very rich and influential and continued the business until 1992. OBC interviewed debutant director Ilinca Călugăreanu.
How did you know about this story? Did someone from your family or yourself take part in these "video nights"?
My first experiences with cinema have to do with Irina Nistor, the heroine of "Chuck Norris vs. Communism ". She dubbed the films I saw as a child, when I was lucky enough to be able to participate in the video nights organised in the blocks of flats.
Years later, I met Irina at a festival in London. I heard her answer a question during a debate and recognised her voice. I was almost paralysed and tried to explain to my friends that that was the woman who had illegally translated thousands of movies under communism in the eighties. That was when I realised that it was a great story and it had to be the subject of my first long documentary.
How did you choose the people who appear in the film? Did you do many interviews?
Almost all people over 30 in Romania have stories related to the "video nights" of the eighties and nineties, when we would watch Hollywood movies illegally. I started with some interviews and then used the snowball method, finding more and more people to interview. Even one of the taxi drivers we met in Bucharest ended up being interviewed. He had grown up with Irina's voice and she was a sort of film babysitter for him and his generation. For the first two years of work on the movie we recorded interviews, trying to find the narrative structure and the best way to tell the story.
When did you decide to combine fiction and documentary? And why? Did you try another approach first?
From the start, my goal was to find a way to tell a story that happened 30 years ago and make it alive again, engaging an audience that might not know about Romania or its particular context in the communist eighties. At first I thought about using animation, but I got to a point where I realised that fiction or drama were the only way to go.
This is a documentary about the power of fiction to impress and stimulate our imagination, so I felt that using fiction, and references to the films we saw then, was the natural solution. So, the scenes we shot are a way of going beyond the respondents' stories and explore their subjectivity. They contain elements of those films in the way of filming, in the sets, the music, and even the narrative structure that we created in editing.
So you shot the fiction after interviews...
Yes, first we shot all the interviews to find the structure of the film. Then I selected the parts of the interviews that could be developed into fiction.
Where does the title come from? For example, Rocky is more present in the film than Chuck Norris...
The title came very soon. I was talking to Irina about the most popular actors of the films that she dubbed and she mentioned Chuck Norris, Van Damme, and Bruce Lee. Like now, action movies were very popular. I think Chuck Norris was the one that best embodied the true American hero who always defeated the bad guys – his characters often fought communist villains and therefore he best embodied the meaning of our film.
How did you find Zamfir's original voice? Have you met?
I met Zamfir at the beginning of the production. Irina introduced us. He did not want to appear in the film and is a very private person, but he agreed to be interviewed and recorded.
I have many hours of interviews with him and you can hear his voice in the film. Only after three years of insistence on my part, he agreed to appear in a shot of the film that you see at the very end.
The film is a sort of thriller. Was that your intention?
The film combines many ingredients and our main effort in postproduction was to find a balance between them: elements of comedy, drama, and thriller. After all, the story takes place behind the Iron Curtain – it involves the secret police and the black market of American movies, so of course there is a strong feeling of thriller.
How do you assess the behaviour of the Stasi towards Zamfir? Was there some sort of agreement?
One thing we tried to show in the film is that the communist regime was collapsing from within in the eighties. There were different factions of the Stasi that did not know each other, and Zamfir knew how to navigate and manipulate the system. But to find out how, you have to watch the movie!
Do you think that this phenomenon really influenced the fall of Ceaușescu?
It was a time when Romania was almost completely isolated from the West, almost no real information would get in. People lived in fear of the regime and all that was provided were two hours of TV a day, which party consisted of propaganda and programmes on Ceauşescu's successes. Some people were skilled or courageous enough to get news from Radio Free Europe and Voice of America, but films in VHS were much more widespread.
They were everywhere, even in remote villages, and motion pictures spoke louder than words. Films showed a different world and allowed people to escape the gray reality of communist Romania for a world of colours and material goods most of us did not even know existed. Most importantly, they showed how democracy worked, how people could interact freely without fear of the secret police or of possible informants among family or friends. They showed how people could speak or act freely to determine their own destiny, instead of having the regime control every aspect of their life.
Having this window on the West, and seeing an alternative, played its part in bringing people to the streets in the 1989 revolution. Like Zamfir says in the film: "People knew that outside there was a better life. How did they know? From the movies".
What was the main reason for Zamfir's success? The taste for the forbidden, for risk?
Zamfir was a great businessman and a pioneer. He loved technology and always wanted to try new things. He did not especially like films, but realised he could make a lot of money. He knew how to play the system and made his fortune. He also liked the power he obtained. Videocassettes were almost an alternative currency in Romania, you could use them to bribe or pay for particular services. I think there was also an element of taste for the forbidden.
How long did it take to complete the project? What was the main difficulty?
I worked on the project for three years. It was my first long documentary, so the biggest challenge was to finance it. We were too ambitious about the way we wanted to tell the story, so it took a long time to convince the lenders. But in the end we had great partners like HBO Europe and Arte, Impact Partners, RatPac Documentary Films, Openvisor, Passion Pictures, and we were even supported by the Sundance Institute.
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