Wonderful documentary about the role of underground VHS screenings in the downfall of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
1985, ‘businessman’ Teodor Zamfir begins smuggling copies of American movies into Romania. Popular culture is almost non-existent at the time except for government approved propaganda. Zamfir sees a gap in the market and takes advantage. The techniques he employs are similar to those used by criminals. Smuggling, bribing officials, hiring dealers to deliver the product, and expanding his organisation to meet the demand. Zamfir’s VHS racket puts him in considerable danger and his motives (at least initially) are for financial gain. The film subtly raises questions about the nature of heroism. Is an act any less courageous if it’s done for profit?
Zamfir used a translator called Irina Nistor who worked for state television and took the job despite the huge risks involved because she loved movies and wanted to see them. Instead of dubbing the actors Nistor simply translates each line after the actor has delivered their dialogue. This seems bloody annoying but for Romanians it becomes part of the show. Those interviewed recall her voice with affection. Indeed director Ilina Calugareanu decided to make the film after recognising Nistor from her distinctive voice at a film festival in London.
Access to Hollywood movies allowed the Romanian people to see the freedoms available to people in the West.
Calugareanu’s film argues Zamfir’s actions caused a huge cultural shift among the Romanian people without the Communist regime even noticing. The most popular genre proved to be the action movies. Bizarrely it’s fuzzy faced all-American icon Chuck Norris the Romanians take to heart. The classic hero’s journey narrative in action films in which the protagonist overcomes insurmountable odds to defeat the bad guys becomes a revolutionary act in the eyes of the youngsters watching.
Ceausescu was overthrown in December 89’ by which time the Iron Curtain had already began to fall. Poland, then Hungary, then East Berlin, followed by Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia had already broken away from Communist rule. Revolution was in the air across Europe and its doubtful 80s’ action films were responsible in all these cases despite Sylvester Stallone’s heartfelt call for detente in Rocky IV (86). Whether Chuck Norris vs Communism overstates its case I’ve no idea. It is however highly entertaining and the contributors are often very funny.
Nistor was present at the screening and now makes a living as a film critic. Interestingly she mentioned something that happened the week after the revolution which struck me as fascinating. One of the tapes due to be translated was “the Kundera film.” Presumably this would be Philip Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (88) which is set during the Velvet Revolution of 1968 when the Czech’s rose up against their government only for the Russians to send the tanks in. Presumably it wasn’t the right time for such a film, but it’s ironic that one of her first acts post-revolution was to censor a movie.