His Blazing Automatics is a Vague Visages column by staff writer Dylan Moses Griffin.
A few weeks ago I wrote a column on the District B13 films and how action movies can act as their own cultural identity. Incidentally, a friend who read the piece recommended that I watch Ilinca Calugareanu’s documentary Chuck Norris vs. Communism. The entertaining and poignant film recounts the years during Nicolae Ceausescu’s communist dictatorship of Romania, where the manufacturing and distribution of banned American films on VHS became incredibly lucrative like a drug trade. The whole ideology behind it shows a different side of what I was arguing in my piece on the D13 films, a sort of relative feeling. In America, we’ve never quite adapted foreign action films well because we could never understand that you can’t just repurpose cultural identity. What Chuck Norris vs. Communism suggests is that the flip side is possible, and that foreign audiences can find their own cultural identity in American action films.
The heroes of this tale are an enigmatic man known as Mr. Zamfir (the man who ran the operation) and Irina Nistor (the woman who dubbed all of the films in Romanian). Their activities are told in reenactments that somehow don’t feel cheap like so many other documentaries. Calugareanu films these reenactments with a keen cinematic eye, capturing the wonder that comes with the discovery and exposure to art, but drenches the film with enough gritty realism to capture the immediacy and danger of what it was like to watch these films. Nistor became a folk legend for people in Romania, a recognizable voice of comfort and security. People felt like they knew her without ever seeing her. Nistor would translate dirty words to “Holy moly,” “Go to hell” and “Get lost,” and a remarkable comedic sequence comes when profane-laced scenes are dubbed with much tamer translations.
Each resident with a VCR acted as their neighborhood arthouse programmers. “Video nights” became religious experiences; the act of watching a new sacrament. Their minds were opened up, their spirits lifted. “You developed through films,” one person recounts. Action films, at their core, are the battle between good and evil. They are the belief that one person can stand up to corruption and make a difference. As curious as it seems, it’s no surprise that the action films we take for granted as simple escapism leave such an impression with people living in oppression. Escapism is its own form of rebellion. Several subjects describe the thrill of watching imperialist films in a communist society. One person chuckles as they reminisce, “I saw Top Gun 38 times.” Who hasn’t felt like taking on an army after watching Commando? Who hasn’t felt that all their dreams can come true after watching Rocky? Chuck Norris vs. Communism is about the power of film and how the censorship of art creates ignorance.
Roger Ebert once eloquently proclaimed that “Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts. When I go to a great movie I can live somebody else’s life for a while. I can walk in somebody else’s shoes. I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live in a different time, to have a different belief.” I doubt Ebert had films like Missing in Action and Bloodsport specifically in mind when he said that, but his words ring true with films like those regardless. Because of films like Chuck Norris vs. Communism, people of Romania knew there was a better world out there. One action hero can change the world.
Dylan Moses Griffin (@DMosesGriffin) has been a cinephile for as long as he can remember. His favorite film is Taxi Driver, and he reads the works of Roger Ebert like it’s scripture. If you want, he will talk to you for 30 minutes about the chronologically weird/amazing Fast and Furious franchise.