Behind the Iron Curtain in the nineteen-eighties, there was a ban on most Western culture, nowhere more than in Romania. Even by the standards of Communist dictatorships, Nicolae Ceausescu's regime was incredibly strict, with the citizens living under a constant state of paranoia that their every move was recorded for sinister purpose which would come back to accuse and imprison them some time in the future. But with this oppression arrived a black market in escapism from the misery of rationing and the secret service, all in the form of an innovation new to the decade: the video cassette. Someone somewhere was dubbing Western movies into Romanian and distributing them among a hidden network of film fans...
Showing up just as the twenty-first century obsession with eighties pop culture was showing no sign of abating, the boldly-titled Chuck Norris Vs Communism was the brainchild of two Romanian sisters, one as director and the other as producer who managed to drum up support for a very different take on the Cold War than we had had before. Director Ilinca Calugareanu was born in 1981, which positioned her at precisely the optimum point to be nostalgic about the era her film was concerned with, yet don't go thinking this was all a cheeky giggle about big hair and cheesy action flicks, as she didn't stint on the chilling realities of living under those harsh conditions.
Basically, if you were caught in one of these unofficial cinema clubs where living rooms across the nation were packed with friends and families fascinated with these movies you were in peril of getting taken away by the authorities, which we are left in no doubt actually happened in some cases. Here we were asked to believe these fuzzy VHS glimpses of Western lives (reproduced here from the original tapes) were enough to kick off a revolution that culminated in the Christmas Day execution of Ceausescu in 1989, which for some audiences would be a bit of a stretch, yet from what we hear of the interviews with the video fans it certainly didn't hurt as they would be just as caught up in the comparative opulence they were seeing of the United States as they were in the storylines.
Now, not everyone in Romania was fluent in English, so there was a hurdle to get over, and here is where Calugareanu found her heroine: Irina Margerita Nistor. Her voice was used to dub dialogue, as much as a commentary as anything since the original actors' voices could still be heard, and though there were thousands, millions even, who knew her prim tones they knew nothing about her, never mind what she looked like. Here she gave her side of the story, where she was a film buff who worked as a government translator and had experience with the draconian censors; she was hired by the shadowy Teodor Zamfir, who is revealed to have had connections in the higher echelons of the secret state, and it is implied was feeding the black market for the impressive cash profits it provided rather than any sense of rebellion.
It is Nistor who becomes the star, aptly after already being a star as interloper in thousands of films. Chuck Norris enters into this as one of the action leading men the Romanians loved, anything with guns and explosions was perfect to lose themselves in, though it wasn't exclusively he who cheered them up. British viewers of a certain age will have an empathy when they compare the Romanian tale to what they went through when video nasties became a hot topic, and those VHS pirate copies became valuable currency, indeed, anyone who sought out A Clockwork Orange will see the appeal. Though at the same time you realise how good you had it when at least the majority of those folks watching dodgy horrors and actioners were not about to disappear because of them. There are sobering moments aplenty here, with re-enactments throughout looking grey and foreboding, but there's also a wonderful sense of humour - Nistor's reticence at translating the swearing generates some big laughs - making for a rich, captivating tale superbly told. Music by Rob Manning and Anne Nitkin.