What if it was illegal to watch your favorite film? If you risked confiscation of your property, jail time, or worse — would you still press play? In 1980s Romania, this wasn’t a hypothetical question.
Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme, inspired oppressed people to embrace pro-freedom ideas.
Under its then-communist regime, Romania outlawed all uncensored Western media. The media ban cut off Romanians from the outside world. The country’s internal television offerings dwindled from 20 hours of content on two channels to just one state-approved daily two-hour broadcast. Hollywood blockbusters such as Rocky and Dirty Dancing became illicit contraband.
The country’s “Ideological Commission” used translators to help edit and recut “imperialist” media to reflect communist values. To that end, this censorship committee prohibited positive portrayals of capitalism — such as Western kitchens stocked with, yes, food. But just as drug and alcohol prohibition fails to eliminate the public’s desire to smoke and drink, Romanian censorship failed to squelch the public’s desire for unaltered media.
Chuck Norris vs. Communism, a fascinating, feature-length documentary now available on Netflix, tells the story of a courageous entrepreneur bootlegger, Teodor Zamfir, and a defiant state translator, Irina Nistor, who risked everything to bring banned films to their fellow countrymen.
The film features historical reenactments and interviews with film-loving Romanians who snuck into illegal screenings in cramped apartments. Viewers see how action stars, including Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme, inspired oppressed people to embrace pro-freedom ideas. This set the stage for Romania’s political revolution. The documentary also gives an often-comedic look into how Nistor dubbed the actors’ dialogue, making her voice one of the most powerful and recognizable in the nation.
Turning one’s living room into a secret screening room wasn’t easy. The host would need a television, but he’d also need the outlawed tapes and a VCR. At the time, VCRs were not sold in Romanian stores and they cost as much as a car. Those who acquired the equipment still had to avoid police raids. They had to avoid informants while spreading the word about the screenings. But if they were successful, the crowds would come.
As the on-screen characters overcame difficult circumstances, Romanians reveled in the small revolution of watching forbidden content such as Top Gun. An older woman explains that it wasn’t until she saw Last Tango in Paris that she realized how far behind the West Romania had fallen. A young man describes how empowered he felt while watching Chuck Norris’s character fight his enemies and escape capture. Cheesy ‘80s action films that feel less like Citizen Kane and more like two-hour memes inspired an entire generation of oppressed people to become the heroes of their own stories. This might be the ultimate lesson in subjective value.
State media bans still exist throughout the world, including in Cuba and North Korea. Chuck Norris vs. Communism gives viewers hope that great stories can empower even those who seem the most isolated. Through entrepreneurship and black markets, people living under tyrannical regimes can still see examples of humanity, love, and the promise of a better world beyond their borders.
Through entrepreneurship and black markets, people living under tyrannical regimes can still see examples of humanity, love, and the promise of a better world beyond their borders.
Chuck Norris vs. Communism reminds American audiences that we are fortunate to live in a relatively free society that enables us to take our entertainment and access to information for granted. In spite of numerous problems in government and recent attacks on free speech, we don’t think twice when shows such as South Park, Making a Murderer, and Scandal criticize our public institutions. We binge watch House of Cards without fear of police raids.
Political satire is so ingrained in contemporary America that even our presidential candidates make comedy videos and visit The Daily Show. We don’t worry that a government censorship committee will cut important scenes in Game of Thrones or exile your favorite documentarian, be it Michael Moore, Dinesh D’Souza, or Ilinca Calugareanu, the filmmaker behind Chuck Norris vs. Communism.
And if we don’t like the content we see, we can just start our own YouTube channels.
Until then, Chuck Norris vs. Communism is a must-see documentary. It reminds us that freedom and film often go hand in hand.
Note: Chuck Norris vs. Communism was one of the Moving Picture Institute’s annual Liberty in Film Award winners.