CHUCK NORRIS VS. COMMUNISM screened as part of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. For more info, head here.
Chuck Norris vs. Communism is a special sort of documentary in that it plays out almost like an intense mystery novel. It chronicles a period of time in Romania when all aspects of life were heavily controlled by the government and VHS players and tapes were forbidden. An underground movement started and people began to gathering in homes at night to watch films, ranging from Rocky to Dr Zhivago, in secret. And these films were all dubbed by a mysterious woman named Irina Nistor. Nobody knew what she looked like, just that she was responsible for bringing them closer to the Western world.
It’s almost too incredulous to be true, right? The story is told through talking-head style interviews with people who took part in these underground film-viewing parties. And as they tell their stories, reminiscing about the great action heroes like Van Damme, Stallone and Chuck Norris (always Chuck Norris), we’re treated to incredible re-enactments, all moody and mysteriously lit. It gives the doc an intense, cinematic flair, almost as if their memories are now movies as well.
The doc focuses mostly on personal anecdotes and what historical facts are to be gleaned through the stories. Not knowing much about Nicolae Ceausescu’s communist reign over Romania, I felt a little in the dark, but I still couldn’t help but be swept along in the story. All the accounts are truly terrific and make the doc seem more personal than a historical doc normally does.
And Irina Nistor was quite the woman. She risked her life (in the Q&A she said that she never masked her voice and anyone who knew her could have identified her) because she wanted to see these films as much as anyone else and was tired of the censorship her country faced. I think that’s the coolest part about Chuck Norris vs. Communism (other than Chuck Norris, of course): the power of film. These people risked arrest and fines and who knows what else to sit around and watch Pretty Woman. I love me “You work on commission right? Big mistake!” as much as the next gal, but risking my life? I’m not sure. But the draw of the outside world, a world not controlled by communism, was worth it for these folks. And I think we take for granted how marvellous even a simple shot of a boulevard in an LA-based movie would seem to the culture-starved Romanians.
The end of the film eludes to the VHS tapes having a hand in the eventual fall of the communist regime. And while I find that a tad bit of a stretch, I don’t doubt that watching these films and seeing these outside worlds and fascinating, strong film characters gave the citizens of Romania something to hope for. They knew it could be better because they had seen it.
Siân Melton is covering Sundance for us live from Park City, Utah. Read about her other work, including her Toronto-based film series The MUFF Society, below.