The Curious Story of How Bootlegged Hollywood Movies Helped Defeat Communism in Romania

Chuck Norris helped defeat Communism in Romania… or at least the black market VHS tapes of his movies did. That’s what Romanian filmmaker Ilinca Calugareanu argues in her New York Times Op Ed piece and in a related documentary short, which you can see above.

Nicolae Ceausescu‘s regime was notoriously brutal and oppressive, even by Warsaw Pact standards. In his mad efforts to eradicate all foreign debt, he impoverished his people while building a massive, opulent palace for himself in the heart of Bucharest. He shut down all radio stations outside of the capital and restricted all television broadcasts to a mere two hours a day. And what was programmed was, by all accounts, pretty dull unless you’re a fan of Communist propaganda.

So it isn’t a suprise that when an enterprising entrepreneur began to flood the black market with bootleg VHS tapes of Hollywood blockbusters in the mid-80s, they were met with great illicit excitement. “It was amazing to do something illegal during Communism, something not Communist. Watching imperialist movies,” says one interviewee.

Movies like Flashdance, Taxi Driver, and Missing in Action became hits. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and, yes, Chuck Norris all became underground stars. Yet while Romanian audiences were wowed by the spectacle of car chases, machine gun fights and exploding helicopters, they were equally transfixed by things that Western audiences might overlook — the relative luxury of a typical American abode, for instance.  It was a powerful reminder that things were far better in the West than at home. “You could see what those people had, what they ate, what freedoms they had, how they spoke to one another,” says another interviewee. “It was completely different. And somehow, underneath it all, you felt … what freedom was.”

Yet the peculiar thing about all these VHS bootlegs is that they were all dubbed by the same person, a young translator named Irina Margareta Nistor. “As Hollywood movies became ubiquitous through the black market, this voice became one of the most recognizable in Romania,” writes Calugareanu. “Yet no one knew who she was.”

Nistor understandably worked in secret, conscious that a brutal crackdown could happen at any moment. But one never came. Ceausescu’s regime met a swift and bloody end on Christmas Day, 1989. As she looks back on her time as a translator and an unwitting underground celebrity, Nistor beams with a quiet pride, explaining that her actions were “a way to trick the Communists. That was my biggest satisfaction.”

Related Content:

How to Spot a Communist Using Literary Criticism: A 1955 Manual from the U.S. Military

How the CIA Secretly Funded Abstract Expressionism During the Cold War

A Short History of Romanian Computing: From 1961 to 1989

Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow.

 



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  1. Avi Burstein says . . . | February 26, 2014 / 5:52 am

    Great interview with the director here: http://www.cbc.ca/player/Radio/Q/ID/2439332340/

  2. Joanna Bujes says . . . | February 26, 2014 / 9:08 pm

    A lot of nonsense here. 1) Romania was not a communist country in any meaningful sense of the word 2) It was the IMF that lent the money to promote Romania moving to an export, race to the bottom economy 3) They might have gotten rid of Ceausescu, but they did not get rid of the rest of the pigs: the apparatchiks and the black marketeers that have siezed all and are making everyone as miserable as ever.

  3. Dragos says . . . | February 27, 2014 / 12:06 am

    “1) Romania was not a communist country in any meaningful sense of the word”… You obviously didn’t live in Romania back then. If you mean that Ceaușescu brought about a system in his own image (read “cult of personality”), that doesn’t make it less communist; it’s after all what every other communist leader was doing – molding a theory into a personal dictatorship. And that is as meaningful as the communist system that exists in N. Korea today. I’m not exactly sure what you mean at point 2) but I will agree with you on the last one: there are still strong remnants of the former political apparatus and of the former way of doing things and “business”.

  4. Stavros Efraimidis says . . . | February 27, 2014 / 12:35 am

    … no reason to doubt this interesting story, but one question … being a communist country, and with all these limitations, how come they had so many VCR’s back then ? …

  5. Dragos says . . . | February 27, 2014 / 2:00 am

    @Stavros
    The same as it was for the Russian people that wanted to listen western music bands and making illegal copies of records: “In the former USSR, records were commonly homemade using discarded medical x-rays. These records, which were usually made under the nation’s samizdat movement, were nicknamed “Bones” or “Ribs”, were usually inscribed with illegal copies of popular music banned by the government.” (Wikipedia – wikipedia.org/wiki/Production_of_gramophone_records). The same as it was for Croatian or Bulgarian people, that had more consumer goods than Romanians or a bit more freedom to leave the country as a tourist or whatever.
    Constraints often bring the wildest and most creative ideas in people’s minds. And as I said in the former comment, each communist country back then was sort of a “one man dictatorship”, reality that brought about differences about limitations and way of life to the people in those countries.

  6. Gholem says . . . | February 27, 2014 / 2:12 am

    @Stavros, that was one of the mysteries of the countries who live under a repressive system.

    My parents had some friends with a VCR and we all went to their place to see films until late night. We were 3 or 4 families gathered around the tv and everyone brought a little food and something to drink.
    It was fun in a way.

  7. Muie lui Dragos, lacheul imperialistilor says . . . | February 27, 2014 / 6:27 am

    No, it wasn’t a “communist” country, you inbred scum, as it wasn’t a democratic, classles society in which the means of production were owned by the working people. It was a bureaucratic, state capitalist society, in which a small elite ran the economy. Not unlike Western “democracies”.

  8. Dragos says . . . | February 27, 2014 / 6:44 am

    You see, people like you are the reason why f***ed up situations exist in the first place in this world. D o y o u g e t i t?

  9. Dan Colman says . . . | February 27, 2014 / 9:37 am

    Dear Muie lui Dragos, lacheul imperialistilor

    If you’re going to post here, have some manners. You can get your ideas across without calling people names and guaranteeing that people ignore what you have to say.

    Thanks,
    Dan

  10. f*** capitalism says . . . | February 27, 2014 / 11:01 am

    @Dragos
    No, it’s because people like you will always cater to the right-wingers’ sadistic pleasures.

  11. Dragos says . . . | February 27, 2014 / 10:40 pm

    @f*** capitalism – Do you want to have a civilized, reasoned conversation (you know – bringing arguments, not calling names, etc) or not?

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