Directed by: Ilinca Calugareanu
Premise: A documentary film about the black market of pirated Hollywood films in Romania during the Cold War. The film mixes testimony with dramatic recreations to explore how these films undermined the communist government.
What Works: The title of Chuck Norris vs. Communism is misleading; the film isn’t strictly about the way that Norris’ films contributed to democratic and capitalist causes during the Cold War, although pictures like Missing in Action and Lone Wolf McQuade do figure into this documentary. Instead, Chuck Norris vs. Communism is about something broader – the way that seemingly innocuous entertainment gave hope to oppressed people and contributed to the downfall of an authoritarian regime. The film is primarily a documentary but it also incorporates dramatic filmmaking techniques. That combination has some drawbacks but it allows the filmmakers to put the viewer in touch with the psychological state of a people under an oppressive regime. Chuck Norris vs. Communism touches upon many different kinds of films that these people watched. While there was a demand for action pictures starring the likes of Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone, Romanians also saw romances and comedies. As the interviewees attest, these films offered an alternative vision of what life could be like. Under the communist regime, all Romanian media was state controlled and the little bit of outside media that was authorized for broadcast was subject to strict and sometimes absurd censorship rules. Chuck Norris vs. Communism is a testament to the power of cinema to cross boundaries and open new perspectives. The pirated films give the Romanian audience a sense of what they were missing and how culture behind the Iron Curtain lagged behind the West. One especially potent section of the documentary addresses the way Christians and other religious people were able to re-experience their faith through cinema; religion had been persecuted by the Communist government and viewing a pirated copy of Jesus of Nazareth allowed people to experience their faith in a way that couldn’t do publicly. In another sequence, Romanian viewers made connections between the corruption of Imperial Rome depicted in Quo Vadis and the circumstances in their own country. As the documentary argues, these films planted the ideas that would later inform the revolution that ousted the communist regime.
What Doesn’t: The combination of traditional documentary filmmaking with dramatic techniques sometimes compromises the movie. The exposition is clumsy in a few places and it is sometimes unclear what is expository and what is dramatic reenactment. The mix of filmmaking forms also fetters the movie’s ability to explore its subject. Chuck Norris vs. Communism doesn’t provide the kind of humanistic insights that drama does well nor does it get into an intellectual analysis that a straightforward documentary might provide. This is especially evident in the film’s lack of exploration of Teodor Zamfir, the kingpin of this network of black market VHS tapes. According to the documentary, Zamfir became extraordinarily wealthy and he was one of the most powerful people in Romania by the end of the 1980s. But Zamfir remains at a distance. The film doesn’t provide any insights into who he was even though the real Zamfir makes an appearance at the end. Chuck Norris vs. Communism also doesn’t delve into the promise of its title; it doesn’t explore specific Hollywood films or characters or genres and how they might have influenced the public. That undermines the movie’s thesis that this VHS black market contributed to the fall of communism.
DVD extras: The film is only currently available streaming through Netflix.
Bottom Line: Chuck Norris vs. Communism offers a fresh perspective on the way we think about our entertainment. The film illustrates the idea that movies have impacts that extend beyond their immediate circumstances and have the capacity to inspire and shape our expectations.
Episode: #650 (June 4, 2017)