Chuck Norris Versus Communism is a great documentary about art, the power of heroes, and the end of communism in Romania. After the communist regime was established in 1948, travel was restricted, the media were censored and the secret police watched everyone. Romania was cut off from the rest of the world. In the mid-1980s, however, smuggled VHS tapes of American movies began to circulate. Underground groups would gather together to watch samizdat movies like Rocky and Lone Wolf McQuade.
For many of the young boys (now men) featured in the documentary the West’s action heroes became role models of endurance, independence and fortitude. I too remember running home filled with enthusiasm after seeing Rocky but in Romania the message was all the more powerful because there was so little else to compete with Hollywood’s images and watching was itself a kind of heroic snubbing of the regime.
The action was exciting but perhaps even more revealing were the ordinary scenes of supermarkets stocked with food, at a time when Romania was racked with severe rationing. City lights, beautiful cars, and the ordinary freedoms of worship and belief casually portrayed, all impressed on the Romanian viewers the starkness of their own situation.
Almost all of the movies were dubbed (technically voice over translated) into Romanian by one woman who took on all the roles. Few people knew her name but her voice became entwined with that of the heroes she translated and she became a national symbol of freedom. Irina Nistor is revealed as a real hero who despite great personal risk continued to translate hundreds of movies because that is when she felt most free.
There’s also a mystery that the documentary discusses but does not fully answer. How did the mastermind of the smuggling operation, Teodor Zamfir, get away with it? At least some of the authorities had some idea of what he was doing but perhaps due to bribery, perhaps because there were no longer any true believers, perhaps because the authorities thought the movies would provide an escape valve from the harshness of Romanian life, they allowed the operation to continue. Zamfir also appears to have had immense personal charisma, so much so that he somehow turned an undercover operative to his side. It’s a remarkable story.
Chuck Norris Versus Communism is available on Netflix.
Hat tip: Dan Klein and also Emily Skarbek’s excellent post.