In the 1984 Chuck Norris film Missing In Action, there’s a scene in which Norris, as a former POW who has returned to Vietnam looking for MIAs, is captured and strung upside down by Vietnamese soldiers. One ties a bag over his head with a rat in it. But when the bag is untied, they discover that instead of the rat chewing Norris’ head off, it’s Our Hero who has killed the rat by biting into its neck.
In Soviet-era Romania, they loved scenes like this.
In fact, according to Chuck Norris vs. Communism, a documentary that airs Monday on PBS, Romanians living under the repressive Stalinist regime of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu loved almost any Western film that was smuggled into the country on VHS. “Watching these films was a very collective way to escape from the situation in Romania,” says Ilica Calugareanu, the film’s director, who spoke to The Daily Beast by phone from London.
“Things were so terrible in Romania at the time,” she says, “and people wanted action, and they saw these heroes—Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Bruce Lee—who could change things.”
Using a combination of archival footage, talking heads and feature film-quality recreations, Chuck Norris vs. Communism shows how an intrepid smuggler and a brave translator helped open up Romania to the West, and eventually contributed to the overthrow of the Ceausescu regime.
In 1985, the country was in its 20th year of dictatorship, its economy was collapsing, and Ceausescu’s increasing paranoia about plots against him meant that “his reign was becoming harsher and harsher,” says Calugareanu. “Rules were changing from one day to the next. So there was this general paranoia that took over.”
In the midst of this regime, Teodor Zamfir began smuggling illegal videos from the West and enlisted Irina Nestor, a translator for state TV, to do voiceover dubs into Romanian. Dirty Dancing, Once Upon A Time In America, Rocky, Top Gun, even Last Tango In Paris—you name it, Nestor dubbed it. In all, she dubbed over nearly 3,000 films, which made hers the most recognized voice in the country after the dictator’s. Zamfir then duped the tapes and sold them clandestinely for viewing at illegal video parties in apartments and homes throughout the country.
“The films challenged your perspective on life,” says one Romanian viewer in the film. “There was a whole life in the video player,” says another.
In a country limited to one TV station which broadcast two hours a day—and where travel abroad and video players were illegal—that life, more than anything else, was what fascinated the Romanian populace. Some watched the films less for their plot’s sake and more for the images of the West they contained.
“People were looking at the material aspects a lot,” says Calugareanu. “The big houses, swimming pools, cars. But beyond that, they were looking at how people were interacting freely in the West. One of my interviewees said he could see people having normal conversations without being afraid of the impact.”
Of course, others did pay attention to plot. Rocky, for example, convinced one of the film’s interviewees to put on sweats and train like the Italian Stallion. Another person, whose first experience with Western film was the sexually explicit Last Tango In Paris (it’s hard to imagine a more mind-blowing introduction to European film) says “it was like being hit over the head…that’s when I realized how far behind the West we were.”
Romania was not the only Soviet bloc country thirsty for Western media. The 2010 documentary Disco and Atomic War, for example, shows how communist bloc Estonians used all sorts of inventive schemes to bring the wonders of Finnish TV into their homes.
“We realized, during our research, that this phenomenon was going on in other Eastern Bloc countries,” says Calugareanu. “It was a general phenomenon of trying to get information from the West. It speaks to the power of media and pop culture.”
That media was more powerful than anyone could have imagined. Despite a few scares, the regime never attempted to shut down Zamfir’s smuggling or the private video parties. In fact, many members of the country’s Secret Service were bribed with tapes (their families were just as eager to watch Chuck Norris in Lone Wolf McQuade as everyone else). Even Ceausescu’s son was one of Zamfir’s clients.
Calugareanu believes the scheme “fell through the cracks in the higher echelons of the regime, and the regime was not aware of the extent of the phenomenon, and the impact it was having.”
“During a dictatorship which had controlled everything, they lost control of something that seemed insignificant—the video tape,” says Zamfir in the film.
The power of movies is at the center of Chuck Norris vs. Communism, and even though the documentary is specific to time and place, Calugareanu hopes that viewers will be “grabbed by the story and allow themselves to be transported to another world. Ultimately, I would hope that our documentary raises questions about the power of film to affect us and even make us act.”
Or, as Nestor says succinctly in the film: “People need stories, no?”