Harsh Texture

Chuck Norris vs Communism

80's American films, particularly the gaudy actioners of the period, were the fuel for a vibrant bootleg trade in communist Romania. A clandestine activity at its peak, this documentary relies on the accounts of those who grew up watching the grainy videos in private viewing parties.

The black market for bootleg tapes in Communist Romania was understandably a clandestine affair. The willing participants had no great desire to document their networks. The individuals who turned their homes into impromptu screening rooms operated under increasing fear of retaliation from the secret police. They weren’t about to create anything that could tie them to their acts. News of screenings passed verbally, no advertisements or fliers. The videos shown in living rooms across the country, whatever seating arrangements could be broken down in a moment’s notice should the police be spotted in the vicinity.

This leaves Chuck Norris vs Communism at a disadvantage in accurately documenting that era. With the absence of photos, contemporaneous reporting, or official statements from the political class of the day, the film has to rely on talking heads and reenactments.

The interviews for the film come largely from people who were impressionable children in the eighties. They can vividly recall the thrill of seeing Sylvester Stallone, Jean Claude Van Damme, and yes Chuck Norris in their action films for the first time. Whatever thrill the Kumite, or getting buried alive in an all terrain vehicle.

These interviews come with the charming hint of hyperbole. They imagine all of Romania feverishly consuming these bootlegs in makeshift theaters across the country. That Irina Nistor--who dubbed more than 3000 videos by herself--had the second most recognizable voice in Romania behind Nicolae CeauČ™escu, the country’s President cum dictator. There’s no way for anyone to confirm or deny just how popular this was.

The reenactments are simple and threadbare, so much so as to be disarming. Each is stuffed with detail. A theater for a dozen filmgoers is constructed from common household items, but with the extra care to provide some padding to the seats. The breathless relaying of the next screening that stops long enough to exchange greetings. The boy who adopts Rocky’s early morning training regimen and wardrobe encounters another boy training and dressed the same.  

The brutalist architecture Romanians lived to have been built to look old and decrepit. The transitions between the reenactments and documentary pieces are seamless.

Eventually the interviews and reenactments center around Irina Nestor and Zamfir, who controls seemingly all the bootlegging activity in Romania. As communism reaches the end of its life Zamfir smoothly plays the regime against itself, using his cache of films to placate politicians and censors.

Chuck Norris vs Communism suffers from a pronounced lack of context. Irina worked for the state officially translating films for the censorship bureau. We never see what happened to the films approved for distribution in Romania. Whether they were popular, or where they were screened. Most of the interviews are with men who speculate the allure to women viewers would be to “keep up with fashion”. “Doctor Zhivago”, “Last Tango in Paris” and “Dirty Dancing” are mentioned among a litany of violent actioners. Were there more female centric films distributed, or did the bootleggers focus primarily on male tastes? Was Zamfir operating alone or were there competing bootleggers? There’s also no attempt to gauge how popular film, bootleg or otherwise, were in communist Romania.

Watching Chuck Norris vs Communism I couldn’t help but see parallels to Wolfpack--a story about isolated children using films to escape their imprisonment. Also Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films. That film painted the output of Cannon films as misogynistic, hyper violent, with unfortunate racist undertones to boot. It painted Cannon impresarios Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus as enthralled with American culture but incapable of understanding it. Chuck Norris vs Communism gives a much kinder appraisal of Cannon’s cultural impact. To a people living under a repressive regime, seeing Chuck Norris conquer Vietnam or Franco Nero as a Ninja spoke to the possible.

Published: Oct. 6, 2018, 6:27 p.m.
Updated: May 11, 2019, 2:45 p.m.