Chuck Norris vs Communism may not literally be the retro action film the title implies, it’s a shorthand way of reflecting how this new documentary captures the giddy way Romanians in the 1980s must have felt when they were given access to bootleg copies of American films. Trapped in a repressive Eastern Bloc society where decadent Western culture was banned by dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, some citizens defied the law and found a way to glimpse the world outside their walls, thanks in part to an underground network of film dubbers (like translator-turned-dubbing “actress” Irina Nistor). 

Filmmaker Ilinca Calugareanu is now based in London but grew up in Romania during this time. Her film uses dramatic recreations alongside interviews (and, naturally, clips from many familiar Hollywood movies) to recreate what it was like for her and those around her who were desperate to see the rest of the world. 

Calugareanu spoke to us about how she put this film together in a unique way and what it was like revisit the sometimes painful memories of that time. Chuck Norris vs. Communism premieres on PBS Monday, Jan. 4 [check local listings].

Why did you want to make this film?

As I was telling people about the story I realized how unique Irina’s voice and the phenomenon itself was. I also understood the significance of what she did, and how people in Romania couldn’t watch films in the same way those in the West could. I knew we had a once in a lifetime opportunity to tell this untold story that the world needed to hear, a story filled with joy and magic from a part of the world that most film audiences don’t know much about.

You grew up in Romania in the 1980s, just as did some of the people you interview in the film. Did you know anything about the mysterious voice dubber Irina Nistor when you were growing up? Did your family worry about getting in trouble for watching these films?

I grew up in 80s Romania and my first contact with film was through Irina Nistor’s voice. My parents didn’t have a VCR but they took me along to a few group screenings organised in blocks of flats, just like the ones portrayed in our film. They would tell me not to talk about films and the screenings in school. That was part of the generalized atmosphere of paranoia that had taken over the country by the ’80s, the internalized fear induced by the regime.

Do you remember the first Western film you got to watch in the 1980s? What was your favorite, or had the most impact on you?

I think the first film I saw was Critters, a horror film that terrorized me for years to come. I would check under my bed every night, to make sure the furry flesh eating monsters didn’t come to get me. The film that had the biggest impact on me, and I think you can tell from the documentary, was Rocky. I was just like the kids in the play-fighting scene in our documentary.

Do you still have any of the VHS tapes from that era with Romanian voice dubbing?

I do. Not from my family’s tiny collection, as they re-recorded over them multiple times. But I tried to source as many as possible as part of research for the film. And on one lucky day, I came across a very special collection. It used to belong to Zamfir, Irina Nistor’s boss and the businessman behind the VHS phenomenon in Romania. As the phenomenon died in the ’90s, he wanted to throw his tapes away. But one of his helpers and life-long friends decided to keep them. He felt they were an integral part of his history and our collective history as well. So I visited the very small room in his house where they are kept. Thousands of VHS tapes are crammed into the room and adorn the walls. It was there that we digitized most of the clips that we used in the documentary.

What would you have liked to have been able to include in the finished film but could not?

One of the scenes we had to cut was a segment where the viewers of the VHS films discuss how Irina was famously known for never dubbing swear words. It’s a hilarious scene, because on all the tapes we digitized we found examples of Irina using euphemisms and the most polite expletives for the very heavy language used in some of the ’80s era films. She didn’t translate these because she never uses them in her daily life and she felt everyone knew what they meant anyway, as swear words are the first words we learn in a foreign language.

Could you talk about some of the other unique challenges you faced in making Chuck Norris vs. Communism?

The first challenge was finding the best way to tell the story. “Don’t let this story down” is the sentence that stayed with me throughout the process. It was a journey of trying and failing. For quite some time, the main quest was finding the central character. After which, the question of “should we go with animation or re-enactment?” became central. We were constantly guided by the desire to create a cinematic experience, a film that would reach as many people as possible despite the language barrier.

Those dramatic recreations are really well done. Can you talk about the process of casting for that, including for Irina, and for the ’80s Romanian film-watching friends and family?  Technically, how did you shoot it to give it that faded retro look?  Did you actually shoot at any locations that were a part of your life growing up?

The dramatic reconstructions are a way to pull the audience in and give life to a story that happened many years ago. They are not historical reconstructions, but more a way to embody the subjective experiences of the interviewees.

It took me some time to come to this creative decision, but there was a point where it all clicked and became clear that this was the only direction that made sense. Chuck Norris vs. Communism is a documentary about film and the power it has to affect us. So the reenactments are also a way to pay tribute to the films that were popular in ’80s Romania. There are many filmic references in the camera department, production design, costumes, music, and even in the narrative structure. It is also why we decided to shoot in Super 16. We wanted the grainy, textured look to mark the moments when go back into the ’80s in the structure of the film. A digital look just didn’t seem right for the story.

Chuck Norris vs. Communism filmmaker Ilinca Calugareanu and producer Mara Adina
Chuck Norris vs. Communism filmmaker Ilinca Calugareanu (left) and the film’s producer Mara Adina

Production-wise, we treated the reenactments as a fiction film. We had several casting sessions. I was very lucky to find Ana Maria Moldovan, the actress who plays Irina during the first casting session. She was incredibly well prepared, studied Irina online and was already getting into the part. The audience members we cast over a longer period of time. They are all non-professional actors.

We shot all the reenactments in my hometown, Cluj-Napoca in Transylvania, so all locations were part of my life growing up to some extent. But because some of them had to invoke Bucharest locations, it made me look at my town in a completely new way.

Also, a strange occurrence came through one of our interviewees. One day, during the shoot he called me to say we had to meet. He told me that he had a friend still in the secret service, and that we should be careful as people were starting to ask questions about us and the film we were making. Nothing happened, of course, but it was odd nonetheless.

Has the film actually been seen in Romania itself yet? I assume the climate for film viewing in that country has changed quite a bit since the fall of Ceaușescu.

It has been screened in several festivals in Romania. People are nostalgic for the VHS screenings, the community feeling they had, Irina’s unique voice. The VHS screenings were amongst the very few happy experiences of ’80s Romania, so people are keen to re-experience the phenomenon and share memories. The film is also a co-production with HBO Romania, so more Romanians will get to see it on HBO there in the next few months, hopefully in group screenings.

Irina Nistor herself was the first and so far one of the few interviewees to see the film. She was very happy with the final result and is still a great supporter of the film.

Can you tell us about a film/project you’re planning to work on next?

I am in development with my first fiction feature for which I am also writing the script, a book adaptation. I am also developing two documentary projects and aching to get back into production.


Bonus: Listen to an interview Ilinca did about the film, with Leonard Lopate on WNYC radio.