Don’t be fooled by its meme-minded title. Chuck Norris vs. Communism is a powerful documentary that offers a fascinating history lesson of Romanian oppression in the mid 1980s. I’d place it up there with Corman’s World & the Golan-Globus doc as a means to get excited about the potency & cultural significance of trashy 70s & 80s action cinema as a form of high art. Hell, it might be one of the best documentaries about cinema as a powerful form of storytelling & a source of comradery in an even more general sense. The film’s title recalls the proto-meme of Chuck Norris jokes that flooded the internet in the early 2000s, but it actually has very little to do with the content of this work as a whole. There’s a great deal more going on here.
Under the totalitarian rule of Nicolae Ceaușescu in the 1980s, Romanian citizens lived a very hushed, secluded life. Foreign media was severely censored & everyone under Ceaușescu’s rule feared surveillance from the government’s secret police force. Almost all entertainment available to the Romanian consumer was some form of government-sanctioned propaganda. VHS cassettes changed all that. Almost overnight a black market for foreign (mostly Hollywood) films began smuggling VHS contraband into Romanian living rooms like hard drugs or military-grade weaponry. This influx of forbidden art not only gave Romanian citizens access to free speech & expression in a way they hadn’t before experienced under Ceaușescu’s ever-tightening grip; it also opened up a world of travel, wealth, and excess they had been shut off from their country’s restrictive borders (even if it was through passive consumerism). Imagine a county-wide version of The Wolfpack & you’ll have pretty good idea of what’s being documented here, except there’s a much less participatory/celebratory spirit at its center.
Part of the reason I’m not in love with Chuck Norris vs. Communism‘s title is that it drastically downplays the film’s true hero: Irina Nistor. Nistor risked imprisonment (or worse) by translating American films into Romanian dubs at a bewildering six to ten films a day at her peak. Nistor became the voice of American cinema for Romanian audiences. She voiced every single character in nearly every film illegally distributed. Chuck Norris and similar action stars like Van Damme, Schwarzeneger, and Stallone may have captured the imaginations of Romanian people. Norris’s Golan-Globus production Missing in Action might’ve even been a particular nexus for their dreams of escape & retribution. However, this film is really Irina Nistor’s story. She’s not a name that would do the film any commercial favors, but she is undeniably its most important facet.
As a documentary, Chuck Norris vs. Communism has an interesting way of experimenting with form. It works mostly as an oral history of the underground VHS market as told by the Romanian people who lived it, backed up by a dramatic re-enactment of Irina Nistor’s personal story. This combo recalls the high production values & word-of-mouth narrative of works like The Nightmare & Thin Blue Line, but by far the most interesting aspect of this film is its content, not its form. There’s an inspiring story at work here about the growing political unrest fueled by illegal Movie Night screenings secretly held in Romanian living rooms. The movie works best when it lets this renegade secrecy grow on its own & may over-extend a little in the back end when it claims that smuggled VHS tapes were the spark that eventually flamed into an overthrow of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s regime. It’s in the smaller, more intimate moments when Chuck Norris vs. Communism excels, especially when it lets Irina Nistor’s fascinating story & the nostalgic potency of the VHS-grade cinema she translated speak or themselves.