December 12, 2016 - How Chuck Norris Freed Romania
It may be coming late to the party--seeing as it was already shown at film festivals in '15 and on PBS back in January '16--but for anyone else who hasn't yet picked up on it, I had to give a shoutout to Ilina Calugareanu's documentary produced for HBO Romania, Chuck Norris Vs. Communism, now currently available on Netflix US, and where all fine indie documentaries are sold. (Which would be...most of the subscription streaming services.)
Like any great populist mainstream-audience documentary, it's one of those stories that, if it didn't happen, it should have, but fortunately, it did:
Under Nicolae Ceausescu's tight Communist control up through the 80's, Romania was culturally isolated from the Western world. Two channels of television were cut to two hours of television a night, usually state-sponsored propaganda of ministry speeches. Anything that even hinted at the infiltration of anti-state ideas was tightly cut. Film or television might be state-censored just for showing an abundance of food, lest it give the masses dangerous ideas to grumble about.
Irina Nistor worked as translator for the state media's information department, before she was privately approached by a man she only knew by his last name and title, "Engineer" Zamfir, for a part-time job dubbing over black-market bootleg VHS tapes of smuggled Western films.
Sitting like a United Nations interpreter with headphones and microphone in front of a small monitor in a rented room, Nistor singlehandedly added UN-style second-after translation dub-overs to Zamfir's bootlegs--And in the process, she not only found herself exposed to new Western influences, but also the unseen free-spirited thrill of enjoying the job in the process.
"I was allowed to say things you weren't allowed to say in this country", Nistor recalls, in her job of translating Ralph Macchio in "The Karate Kid" one day and Sylvester Stallone in "Rambo: First Blood Pt. II" the next. "I could say 'You stinking Communist'!"
So many secret fans recognized Nistor's voice coming out of every actor's mouth ("She had the voice of an angel", one surviving fan jokes, as most try to guess what body the Voice must have belonged to), Irina found herself becoming literally the Voice of the Underground.
In a country where a foreign-bought VCR could cost as much as a Dacia automobile, fifteen or twenty people could gather in a neighbor's darkened living-room apartment with the curtains closed for a cash-under-the-table "Video night", to watch just whatever forbidden Western VHS tape the local black-marketer had smuggled past the border in his car trunk.
As with any cheap forbidden-thrill, sex and action were the big sellers at first: Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Stallone--A machine gun volley or kickbox-chop always transcended language barriers. One woman remembers her first experience with Western films hiding her eyes to "Last Tango in Paris" ("I realized how far behind the West we were", one recalls.)
But as Zamfir expanded his operations to a thriving black-market factory of more smuggled goodies, audiences were exposed to more and more eye-opening images of life outside cultural repression. Eddie Murphy driving through Beverly Hills was not as much of a culture shock to a disgruntled generation of Romanians as seeing the movie scene of a character walk into a grocery or convenience store with full shelves of food.
Although watching forbidden movies didn't mean deportation, watching unapproved movies might still attract attention by the Secret Police. Kids grew up only vaguely knowing why they weren't supposed to talk about their parents and parents' friends watching a static-riddled Nth-generation copy of Top Gun (some barely visible, copied by bootleggers who had never heard of Macrovision), or why to hide in the bedroom if there was an unexpected knock at the door.
But a generation becoming hooked on the rush of illegal goods came to realize they weren't just watching the cheap thrill of seeing an action hero: Watching Norris singlehandedly defeating his POW torturers in the "Missing in Action" series, or driving his Dodge Ramcharger out of the grave in "Lone Wolf McQuade", they were seeing lone heroes fight back against authority and win, and the triumph of the individual, not the state, over all impossible odds.
Golan & Globus's Cannon Pictures had now become Radio Free Europe.
By mixing dramatic re-enactment with the recollections, Calugareanu also manages to stage her documentary as an espionage thriller as well:
As Nistor's duties expand with Zamfir's growing business, she's aware the Secret Police may be on to her, but wonders why they haven't moved in yet. Although she barely knows anything about her employer, agents seem to be treating him with kid gloves, and with her day-job bureau position, begins to suspect that she's been set up for high-level entrapment.
And yet, the movies win out even with that secret revealed. Zamfir was a black-marketeer and a man of mystery, but behind all of that, he was an 80's video nut first.
It's a feel-good documentary that takes a Romanian pop-culture nostalgia approach to the events--glossing over the other political upheavals that ultimately took down Communist Romania, and the harsh transitions in the changeover--as a romanticized myth that it really must have been Chuck who inspired the people to revolution. As current Internet memes have it, what can't Chuck do?
And for US movie fans, it has any number of reasons to appeal: On a culturally jingoistic level, it's another fun story of gloating over the end of the Cold War, and how the Berlin Wall couldn't stand up to our decadent capitalist revolutions of blue jeans, the Beatles and Coca-Cola.
For the movie-sentimental, it's another sigh in favor of the Power of Movies, as we see apartment living rooms of rapt audiences glued to an adventure on a small VCR-fueled TV set, and children playing out Chuck's victories in the street.
On a Big-80's Movies level, it's a nostalgia blast of how mainstream movies in the 80's could get fifteen or twenty people in a living room, of the thrill of taking the magic black hard-plastic tape out of its cardboard and popping it in the machine for Movie Night, and the cheesy glories of 80's action stars. (Although for the glories of 80's Golan/Globus films, Mark Hartley's 2014 documentary Electric Boogaloo: the Wild Untold Story of Cannon Pictures, is recommended as further syllabus on the subject, and also currently available on Netflix.)
But with my own particular cause, I found the movie resonated an important lesson in our own repressed war at home as well:
It's a victory for democracy that could have happened ONLY with physical media.
In the 60's, we'd be talking about forbidden books breaking down the Wall, a secret paperback copy of Jack Kerouac or George Orwell smuggled past the border guards in the book bag of an exchange student, and changing from hand to hand between intellectually curious university kids at a cafe'. Ideas were in books, and books existed as things, conveniently packed objects that could be passed from one hand to another like a cigarette or cup of espresso, with the secret lure of "Here, try this, it'll open your mind, and it's, like, cool, too." Preferably if there was no one watching who had already declared said package was against the interests of the Powers That Be.
In the 80's, once the technology caught on, we discovered that movies were books, things to put on your shelf to be preserved for posterity. Or better yet, to be kept in a rental library for others, the more off-center the better, and loaned out to your friends and neighbors by hand, with the same personal-delivered message of "Watch this." More just because it was Cool, Too than politically enlightening...But the point was to make it contagious, and watch the pandemic spread.
Studios at the moment don't have quite the same respect for treating a movie as a package that can sit on shelves or travel from hand to hand, or across patrolled borders in unmarked cardboard sleeves, next to a buried bottle of liquor or pair of blue jeans. They wish to get it into our heads that, you see, we don't really like movies being physical objects, because they're so bulky and clunky, and that we wish for some great authority to handle them for us, and make it easier to watch the movies on their convenient terms.
Movies would be so much better, they tell us, if they were just somewhere in a corporate central location where important people could take care of them for you, and you wouldn't have to bother with tapes to snarl or disks to clutter up your shelf--That way they'd be YOURS, you see!
But it's because movies could travel, even to places where they couldn't, that they could infiltrate viewers who didn't even know yet that they loved the movies. Movies that don't travel, and stay on the Internet in some soft, magic digitally-traveling ether of 1's and 0's, are at the mercy of the state's control of the Internet, what is allowed to travel on it, and just which of the masses are allowed to patronize advantage of it for their own good. Physical media tends to frustrate that, since the problem of stopping that is in stopping the people who carry them...And that's always been a bit more complicated.
Ceausescu's regime could have stopped a theatrical film from being shown in public theaters, it could have stopped television, and it could have stopped the Internet before it even got to the border. But Communism couldn't stop a VHS tape.