Chuck Norris vs Communism: Hollywood Narrative in Documentary Form

An analysis to accompany SO1EO4 by Oana-Maria Mazilu.

So, have you watched Chuck Norris vs Communism yet? Wasn’t it awesome?! Did you know that VCR tapes of Hollywood films were being smuggled in Romania in the 1980s? If you’ve watched the film, my guess is that it has informed you of this interesting way of distributing and watching movies, and how much Hollywood entertainment meant for Romanians, as a form of defiance towards Ceaușescu’s oppressive, censorship-infested regime. It may have also led you to believe that these VCR tapes sparked Romania’s 1989 Revolution. Well, that’s not quite true. Unsurprisingly, a number of viewers familiar with the historical context got up from their seats to say ‘That’s not how it happened!’. They were right, but the truth is that such historical details were not the focus of Chuck Norris vs Communism. This is not a documentary that informs the viewer of the number of Securitate officers, or even what the Securitate was, it does not present Ceaușescu’s personality cult and the regime’s policies. These topics have been discussed both in academia, by historians such as Dennis Deletant, and in film through numerous TV documentaries. However, aspects of leisure life in communist Romania have rarely been touched upon and this is one of the reasons for which Chuck Norris vs Communism stands out. We know that the regime was oppressive, but what were Romanians in the 1980s actually doing when they weren’t standing in the food cue? Chuck Norris vs Communism tells us that at least parts of their evenings were spent watching bootlegged videotapes of Hollywood films, the majority of which were dubbed by Irina Nistor. In showing this story, Chuck Norris vs Communism displays a stylised narrative structure that draws from the conventions of classical Hollywood filmmaking.   

I mentioned in the podcast episode that the docudrama label may have been more fitting for Chuck Norris vs Communism, rather than categorising it so solidly as a documentary. It is true that the film is dominated by three of the most easily identifiable documentary techniques: talking heads (interviews), re-enactments and use of archival footage. Yet, in the classical Hollywood tradition, the film presents us with ‘individual characters making things happen’ as put simply by Bordwell, Thompson and Smith (2017, p.98). The first 7 minutes of Chuck Norris vs Communism establish historical context and setting. Before the film title even appears on screen, as audiences we are informed through title cards of the time period (1985), location (Romania), and context (Ceaușescu’s regime, cultural isolation, control of free speech and media, fear of surveillance). Each interviewee adds their own, personal experience of the time as the editing cuts between talking heads, re-enactments of people sitting around the TV, and archival footage from VHS tapes of Dirty Dancing, Once Upon a Time in America, 12 Weeks and Last Tango in Paris. They are not just scenes from these films. There is a particularly graininess to them that shows the image quality of these tapes, and then with Last Tango in Paris we hear…the voice. And so begins the gradual introduction of our protagonist, one that builds and maintains curiosity across the duration of the film because, in truth, Irina Nistor herself appears on screen roughly an hour later. Until then, Ana Maria Moldovan plays the character of Irina Nistor in re-enactments that feature the translator. These specific re-enactments are pieces of the film within a film. Change the perspective, and moments of Chuck Norris vs Communism feel as though the interviewees are commenting on an Irina Nistor bio pic. One such scene is the re-enactment of Irina Nistor being called into Orzan’s office. Nistor’s voice-over describes the incident and her nervousness, while Ana Maria Moldovan embodies these emotions. She fidgets with her glasses in the elevator, as she walks into the office and holds papers tightly into her fist. Behind her, the portrait of Ceaușescu looms as an almost haunting presence. The camera itself is backed up into the corners of the room and static as it captures Orzan’s anger over Nistor’s translation of Jesus of Nazareth, a banned film. Audibly, it is one of the scenes where we hear both Irina Nistor’s voice, and Ana Maria Moldovan’s trained voice to sound like Irina Nistor. The two take turns when talking. The voices don’t overlap and there is a seamless transition between them. Take away the visuals, and you might not be able to distinguish between Irina Nistor’s real voice and that of Ana Maria Moldovan in playing this role. The scene would have never worked had Moldovan failed to capture that voice because we have the real voice to compare it with right then and there. Truthfully, a substantial difference between the two would have been noticed early on in Chuck Norris vs Communism and disappointed audiences instantly. 

Orzan’s office scene is also interesting in terms of the conventions of the classical Hollywood narrative. It is tense, it keeps audiences in suspense, it shows our protagonist in conflict with an authority representative, and follows the linear cause and effect structure. Nistor was dubbing bootlegged VHS tapes, the authorities have truly caught on, and so the plot has progressed to this tense point. Thus, Chuck Norris vs Communism gradually begins to work on resolving the conflict. Perhaps the most illustrative section of the film in respect to the classical Hollywood narrative is the ending. In classical Hollywood tradition, closed endings are preferred. A closed ending does not leave you hanging. It provides closure and satisfies audiences. Could Chuck Norris vs Communism have provided a closed ending without mentioning the 1989 Revolution? No. In its endeavour to satisfy audience expectations, Romanian viewers certainly expected some note on the Revolution, not only because of the chronology of the events, but also because pretty much every other documentary on communist Romanian ends with the Revolution. In one way or another, it’s just expected.

The scene before archival footage of the Revolution starts rolling on the screen signals the closed ending. It is one where all documentary techniques come together: talking heads, re-enactments of people watching bootlegged tapes and Moldovan in her role as Irina Nistor, and archival footage. The real Irina Nistor had recently appeared and informed us, visually and audibly, of the films she had dubbed and satisfied that curiosity of what she really looks like. In this scene, it is she who informs us of the fall of the regime, specifically the confusion on whether Ceașescu would truly be removed from power. Other interviewees further strengthen this signal, as talking heads are intercut with footage from Rocky II. It’s funny that the only person who didn’t seem to know about the extent of the VHS black market was Ceaușescu himself. The Revolution is the climax of Chuck Norris vs Communism, and in the cause and effect narrative that it had woven around Irina Nistor as a protagonist, it frames these VHS tapes, and Nistor herself, as having had some contribution to sparking the Revolution. In case you missed it, one interviewee tells you that the VHS tapes planted the seeds of freedom. Of course, this is the point that generated the audience backlash. It is not historically accurate and it is the only moment that does not meet audience expectations, specifically the expectation that a documentary film should be factually correct. It works in the recipe of classical Hollywood narrative, but not in that of documentary film. But Chuck Norris vs Communism does not end here. Archival footage of the Revolution may tell us what happened to the regime, but not what happened to the VHS operation. To provide a fully closed ending, the final scene informs audiences that Zamfir quickly sold his equipment and the operation ceased in the early 90s.                              

Chuck Norris vs Communism took a leap in how it framed the connection between bootlegged VHS tapes and the Revolution. A docudrama label would have tackled the expected truthfulness of the documentary genre, eliminating, or at least diminishing the audience backlash. However, it remains a pleasurable and entertaining watch that captures the oral history of how Romanians were watching Hollywood films at a peak time of oppression in the Ceaușescu regime. 

References

Bordwell, D., Thompson, K. and Smith, J. (2017). Film Art: An Introduction. 11th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Education.

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