This documentary takes us to Romania in the 1980s to explore the black market in bootleg videos which exploded under Ceausescu’s Communist regime.
It’s told through interviews with many people who lived under the regime, describing their first film viewing experiences and the impact it had, including one poor woman whose first film ever was Last Tango in Paris. Supported by reconstructions, they describe how the films opened to their eyes to a world without queues for food and secret police.
It’s not as much about Chuck Norris as its witty title would suggest, featuring films including Doctor Zhivago, When Harry Met Sally, Aliens, Scarface, The Terminator and multiple Rocky and Rambo films. In fact a more fitting title would have been Sylvester Stallone Vs Communism, but then people might confuse it with Rocky IV.
What’s remarkable is how young some of the interviewees are: people only just reaching middle age, in a now-EU country, grew up under a regime where you could have your door bashed in by secret police for watching Jaws 2 like Mary Whitehouse on steroids.
It draws particular attention to two heroes of the trade: Teodor Zamfir, who imported and copied the videos, eventually bribing the authorities to let him continue, and Irina Nistor, who worked for the censorship bureau by day and by night dubbed the bootlegged films into Romanian, becoming one of the most recognisable voices in the country after single-voicedly dubbing over 3,000 films.
It’s about the power of film to change your outlook, and the need for escapism, but it’s also an interesting study in how context can alter your view of a film. The films of Chuck Norris, for instance, seem to be far more fondly remembered by Romanians who watched them on tiny TVs from scratchy videotapes in cramped living rooms than for audiences who saw them in their full glory.
It draws a direct link from this ubiquitous trade to the gradual undermining of the regime that led to Ceausescu’s humiliating final speech and its ultimate downfall. No matter how hard this is to prove, it’s a tantilising prospect. Yet it also serves as a warning against underestimating the transformative power of new communication technology, that even people in modern democracies would do well to heed.