The year is 1985, 20 years into Nicolae Ceausescu’s Communist rule in Romania. Freedom of creative expression is at an all-time low as media and entertainment is heavily policed. The introduction and popularization of the video home system (VHS) in Romania on the rise — an underground movement that starts off with little more than a whisper.
These events are at the heart of “Chuck Norris vs. Terrorism,” director Ilinca Calugareanu’s first feature, an inspiring and nostalgic documentary-narrative hybrid that explores the tale of the guerrilla film-smuggling movement that claims to have toppled the Romanian Communist regime in 1989. Filmed in the traditional talking-head style accompanied by moody, atmospheric reenactments, the events are as murky and morally ambiguous as a John le Carré novel.
The seeping of VHS films into the Romanian culture at the time was slow and measured, an initiative started by a few brave individuals who managed to get their hands on illicit VCRs and smuggled VHS tapes. This led to impromptu word-of-mouth screenings of popular American action films such as “Rocky” and 1984’s “Missing in Action,” which quickly spread their Western influence to its eager Romanian audience.
A salient point that “Chuck” dredges up is the distinct contrast between the perception of Western film in America and Romania. Mainstream American film was something that was — and increasingly continues to be — so easily accessible to us. It’s an aspect of our culture whose unrestrained convenience and availability we take for granted; something that we casually while away on first dates, on TV dinners and late nights passed out on the couch. When viewed from a distance, through Romanian eyes, it gains a sense of wide-eyed wonder, of starry idolization, a feeling gradually faded and lost by the satiated Western appetite.
“Chuck” outlines this undeniably fascinating history with plenty of details. Translator and film dubber Irina Nistor came to be regarded as the figurehead of the guerrilla VHS movement in communist Romania. By 1989 she had dubbed over an estimated 3,000 American films, and her ability to be emotive and expressive while translating was held beloved by those who watched her work. With the help of sympathetic Romanian officials as well as members of the secret police, the underground movement maintained its low-profile activism, and not without a sense of excitement. The undeniable draw of the whole enterprise was its defiant attitude — a thumbing of noses towards the tyranny of the communist regime. It was a resistance of the most subtle yet persistent kind, held up by a solid core of determined individuals bent on providing a constant means of optimism as well as a doorway to an alternate existence.
To those under Ceausescu’s regime, Western film was a portal and an escape, in a way that was less about exoticism and fantasy and more about getting a glimpse into a looser political climate, a place where pop culture and commerce flowed freely and hand-in-hand. The VHS films were elevated beyond idle entertainment: they were instruments of morale; they were used physically as bartering currency to bribe officials and keep the movement in motion; they became imbued with a heavy sense of power and the responsibility to be the artifacts of uprising in the face of oppression and adversity.
“Chuck” gets fuzzy around the edges when it directly attributes the fall of the communist regime in 1989 to the illicit film-smuggling movement. The connection seems hasty and tenuous: Film certainly seemed to play a role in fueling the quiet insurgency in Romania at the time, but to say that it was pervasive enough to move an entire nation to fight against a despotic rule that had been in place for decades seems somewhat of a gross exaggeration.
The historical logistics may be imperfect, but the main thing to take away from “Chuck” is its fresh and authentic perspective on Western film from a foreign party, and the far-reaching ability that film—even something as basely enjoyable as a Chuck Norris action flick—has to connect audiences and provide unbridled hope and escape to those in direst need.