VHS Revolution: Calugareanu Shoots For Docu-Thrills
Much of the time, American imperialism is a culture destroying force that denigrates through sheer, unwieldy bloat, but in the case of Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania of the 80s, the underground circulation of American films, especially action films starring the likes of Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme, proved to be the catalyst that brought the brutal communist leader’s reign to an end. Thanks to a trio of brave souls and an army of bribed government officials, crudely dubbed VHS copies of American films of all sorts found their way into the packed living rooms of Romanians throughout the country, enlightening the masses to the oppressive state in which they unknowingly lived. Employing a strikingly lensed docudrama format that blends in lively interviews with those involved and many of those affected, director Ilinca Calugareanu elegantly recreates the cultural revelations of Romania still under the thumb of severe communist rule in the pleasantly slight, but mildly over extended Chuck Norris vs Communism.
Behind the black market VHS enterprise was an eternally well dressed smooth operator named Zamfir who smuggled American films into the country and managed all the post-dubbing distribution. Zamfir had convinced a translator for the National Television’s Censorship Committee named Irina, as well as a cold, tight lipped man named Mircea, to become his partners in crime. Though they both dubbed film after film, day after day, it was Irina’s emotively shrill voice that would give Romanian life to nearly every actor that had a speaking part in thousands of American films and in turn became an unexpected symbol of political subversion and hope.
Organizing by word of mouth and watching film after film, Romanians began to fall in love with her, imagining what the disembodied voice might look like in physical form. Calugareanu’s varied cast of interviewees recollect their own relationships with her voice, the inflexive quirks that revealed her moral boundaries to them and the imagined visages each of them had of her. “Why was she committing this continuing act of performative treason?”, many would come to wonder. Emphatically, Irina answers, “People need stories, no?”
It’s this simple, yet profound statement that propels the film’s narrative throughline. Without these films, silly as many of them were, an entire nation may have gone far longer into the gloomy destitution of a Romania under Ceausescu’s rule. Hidden within these tales of ninjas and robots, boxers and war heroes, were visions of prosperity wholly alien to the subversive audiences covertly drinking them in. It’s this notion that the power of cinema can and often does provide a sense that we as a people are one and the same and able to overcome whatever might attempt to hold us back.
The only thing that is holding back Chuck Norris vs Communism itself is that although it was gloriously shot by cinematographer Jose Ruiz to look like a taut thriller set amongst the retro apartment fittings and basement recording studios in which these VHS tapes were illegally produced and consumed, it lacks the narrative tension to hold us firmly through the already slim 80 minute feature. Though there is a mild narrative payoff come the final few scenes, the fact that parts of the tail are told in voiceover by our offscreen heros keys us into the truth that these people must did in fact make it out safe and sound despite whatever dangers were presented by the always lurking secret police. With that in mind, Ilinca Calugareanu’s return to non-fiction remains a delightful celebration of the power of films of all sorts, some silly, some suspenseful, but certainly not all for naught.
Reviewed on January 31st at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival – World Documentary Competition Programme. 80 Min.