Review: Chuck Norris vs Communism

The voice of freedom and hope

“To deny 20 million people access to information and to keep a whole country in ignorance for years has very serious consequences.”

3000 films. That’s how many ‘western, imperialist’ films Irina Nistor had dubbed by 1989. Sometimes she dubbed as much as six films in a row. Now that’s what I call binge-watching. And binge-dubbing. But why did she dub? Chuck Norris vs Communism tells the story of an ordinary but courageous Romanian woman, and the story of the communist era in Romania – the story of an era that would have been more or less storyless if it weren’t for western films that got smuggled across the border, and for Irina Nistor who dubbed them tirelessly.

Most of the film consists of interviews with Irina Nistor, those around her and her fans. The story unfolds through these interviews and the flashback scenes the film is larded with. And fans – she has no shortage of them. Since Irina Nistor was virtually the only person dubbing those ‘imperialist films’, her voice is the most well-known voice of the communist era, after Ceaucescu’s. And everybody loves her for it. Here are some descriptions of Irina Nistor’s voice, by people trying to imagine what the person behind the voice was like:

“Like a feline… A mannequin.”

“… voice of a choir of angels”

“I always felt she was blonde.” [Spot on.]

“I didn’t think she had a body.”

“I always imagined her dubbing films in her kitchen, making soup; there always were these background noises.” [She didn’t.]

But more important than these visions of Irina is what the films she dubbed did to the audience.
Women watched films to learn about Western fashion – there were no fashion shows on tv. But the films did much more than that. As one interviewee put it: “Film changed your perspective on life – you developed through watching films.” And since the people of Romania were not allowed to visit other countries during the communist era, they visited them through film:

“We craved them and marvelled at the landscapes and cities, rather than the action.”

These films, no matter how shallow some of them might seem, transformed their world:

“The street was no longer just a street. A rock not just a rock. We wanted to be heroes.”

Film was “a window into the west from which [they] could see what a free world was like.”
And a much-needed window it was. People needed this encouragement, this breath of fresh air, to take a stance against communism; however small it was. “It felt amazing to do something illegal during communism, something not communist: like watching imperialist films.” In a free world, watching a film may seem almost trivial; it is a pastime. But back in those days in Romania, it was a soul-saving activity; an act of defiance against the suffocating powers of communism. “Videos were the one thing that made us survive,” someone admits. State tv was “as terrible as the food we could find.” Watching film was a brilliant way to not dance to their tune, for once.

Irina didn’t just translate; she interpreted. She left her mark on the films by making comments during translation. Her principles shone through, too: she wouldn’t, ever, translate swearwords, for instance. Every swearword would translate into ‘la dracul!’ (to the devil) (and you’d hear a big loud ‘Fuck!’ in the original). She wouldn’t translate any sex-related language either. I wonder how she dealt with that.

And Ceausescu? He had no idea. Nobody told him. Not even his own son, who secretly bought tapes as well. Because everybody wanted to watch film. As did Irina Nistor herself. When asked why she didn’t give up, she says: “I just wanted to watch films! And people needed stories, nu?” No grand, heroic motivations here – just a woman who loved film and didn’t mind kicking the communist leadership in the ass. By simply doing what she loved she kept her soul alive, and the souls of many others.

And although these days Romania is a democracy and the borders are open, the scars of the communist era are still visible. For one thing, the fight with corruption is still on. But also, the people are still defiant. During the interview with Irina Nistor after the film screening in The Hague, she pointed out that after the night club fire in Bucharest in 2015, young people wrote slogans on the walls like ‘Chuck Norris for Prime Minister’ and ‘Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger will save us’. It goes to show how powerful these clandestine films have been, and still are. Someone in a free country may just want to be that hero from a film. But someone from a country bullied by a regime will feel inspired to fight like that hero, and beat the regime. And they beat it alright.

Some stats:

Films dubbed by 1989: about 3000

Price of a video player: 55,000 LEI – about as much as a Dacia

Number of VCRs at the start of the project: 3

Number of VCRs towards the end of the project: over 360

Number of tapes a day: 300

Cost of a single tape: 1000 LEI (which meant Teodor Zamfir, Irina’s employer, earned the price of a small house every day!)

Irina Nistor and me
‘The feline’ and me at the Movies that Matter festival in The Hague, 20.03.2016
Still from the film
Still from the film

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