No, Chuck Norris didn’t actually fight communists, pistols blazing in both hands. But the infiltration of Western media into the Soviet bloc definitely helped to fan anti-communist dispositions. Staff writer Gabrielle Kloppers writes about the recent documentary, Chuck Norris v Communism, and its effects on communist Romania.
For many Columbia students, movies represent an escape from a world where they are overexposed to everything, and they need a mental break. For those living in communist Romania, however, movies represented an escape from a world in which they were exposed to very little, and fed only the lies of the communist regime.
Recent movie screening and question and answer session at the Maison Française was designed to give current students a intimate portrait of life under Ceausescu through the work of a translator who illegally dubbed censored films and distributed them to the populace of Romania.
A recent documentary, Chuck Norris v Communism, exposed how a film translator, Irina Nistor, changed the attitudes of the oppressed under communist rule in Romania by exposing them to the movies of the West, and consequently highlighting the contrast between their living conditions and those of the action stars they saw on-screen. This documentary skillfully incorporated interviews with those who ran the foreign-film plan, and those affected by it growing up in Romania. The documentary, directed and written by Ilinca Calugareanu also incorporated flashback scenes with actors in order to deliver a more personal perspective. Furthermore, the incorporation of newscasts of Ceausescu’s speeches and snippets from films popular among the Romanian proletariat gave the film a historical tone that grounded it in authenticity.
These elements combined with the highly personal accounts transported me to far-away communist Romania (combined of course with the whispers behind me in Romanian, as the audience related personal memories). Hearing about the ‘psychosis of surveillance’ the people felt was touching; what was more touching to this Netflix-loving Bwogger was the people’s craving for TV and movies. Confined to only two hours of TV a day (something this addict couldn’t comprehended), the Romanian people felt transported by the movies, and also appreciated that they could quietly rebel against the Ceausescu regime by ‘watching Imperialist movies’.
Those interviewed cited not only the movies they watched, such as Top Gun, Pretty Woman and Last Tango in Paris as a symbol of hope, changing their ‘perspective on life’, but also the voice of Irina Nistor, who dubbed practically every Western movie shown in Romania at the time. Her voice became an icon of resilience against the regime, and was described by many as being ‘like a voice from a choir of angels’. Many stated they ‘didn’t think she had a body’, and if she did, it was ‘feline, a model’.
The story of Irina Nistor and her colleague’s work was particularly inspiring because of the incredible odds faced, including discovery by the Romanian Secret Police. Thus, it was particularly inspiring to see Irina Nistor herself speak. She talked about how she could never imagine the impact of the films, and until the end of Ceausescu’s rule had no idea how many people were watching them. Nistor also discussed that this is how she supposed the illegal films were able to grow so much momentum; the Central Committee also couldn’t imagine how impactful something as small as foreign films would be.
Not only did the films change the fate of Romania, they also changed Irina’s personal perspective on life. Learning English at university in Romania, she was taught by teachers who themselves had learned English from the radio. She looked to movies, radio and TV in order to improve her skills, the only passion she had left. Her desire to learn and to make a difference certainly puts into perspective how much most of us deplore doing our language requirement, even at one of the most well equipped universities in the world. Irina Nistor not only learnt just as much in limited circumstances, she also used these skills to make a difference in a time when most thought making a difference was wholly impossible.
Leaving the question and answer session, the reception afterward was inundated with Romanian voices. A Romanian friend of mine translated, as all around stories were told of personal experiences living under the regime. All present thanked Nistor for their immense impact on their lives, and were particularly gratified to hear again the voice with which they had grown up.
Photo by Gabrielle Kloppers