In her new film, Chuck Norris vs Communism, Romanian director Ilinca Calugareanu takes us on an emotional journey behind the Iron Curtain to a place where film is outlawed and the oppressed people find solace in poorly pirated American action movies. We were lucky enough to catch up with her as she prepared for the film`s premiere.
Why did you decide to tell this story?
I think for me，most of all it`s a film about film and the power it has to affect us and even to change our lives. It`s such a strong message and such a strange story that I just had to tell it. Of course, as I was working on it and engaging in all sorts of conversations about the topic, we discussed the power of media and how we see things today. We`ve learned about similar situations in North Korea where people are watching soaps from South Korea and I think it`s a very universal story about the power of film and the power of media. Nowadays we take media for granted, with film and the internet everywhere, and it’s a freedom that not everyone has. I wanted to show people the reverse side of the situation.
Being Romanian yourself, is there a personal side to this story?
Well I grew up in the Eighties and my first contact with film was through Irina (Nistor)`s voice, so I`m very much part of this generation that feature in the film, who had Irina as this sort of video nanny. I then met Irina during a film festival in London three years ago, and that`s when I decided to tell the story. She was answering questions at a Q&A and hearing her voice took me way back to all of those memories of the screenings, and seeing Rocky for the first time, or being terrified by Critters… I told my friends who she was, and as I was gushing about her I realized what an amazing story we all shared and that I should make a film about it.
So what was it like finally having a face to put to the mysterious voice that you`d grown up with?
I had already seen her face, because after the revolution she had, and still does have, a TV show about films, and she`s a very famous film critic now and all the festivals we`ve taken the film to, she`s been there too! It was Irina who took me to meet Zamfir (the mastermind behind the trade in videotapes) as they still communicate from time to time. He`s a very mysterious and controversial character and I hope that kind of comes across in the film. It`s actually been a three year conversation just to get that final shot of him in the film. He agreed to be interviewed, but he didn’t want his image to appear, so that was a difficult and lengthy conversation, but in the end we convinced him. And he`s still the same; he`s still controlling and powerful… He lives alone in this restaurant he built in Bucharest after the revolution… He kind of this King Lear figure!
After the revolution, how did people react to the sudden influx of free media?
The thing I know most about is what happened to the tapes; suddenly these rental shops began to open, where you just had to show your ID and then you could get all these films, and they were making catalogues and coming up with new genres; explosion films, helicopter films… It was an amazing phenomenon. There was so much competition. And then the cable TV stations and the private station began to appear. Right after the revolution, we had freedom of press, so people started to get much more involved.
And what was your favourite of these illegal films?
I think, and I know it comes across in the film, that I have a weakness for Rocky. He`s the one that could live out my dreams, and I almost felt like I was becoming him! And also Critters, because that film really terrified me for years and years. These are films that teenagers across the world love, and that`s something I really hoped to pick up on when I was making the film. We have this common denominator between the West and the East; in a way we all share this VHS culture and all of the same films, and this hopefully will attract audiences. We all know these films, but we have such different relationships with them. Whether we were watching them behind the Iron Curtain or at your friend`s house because his dad had taped it off the television. While some people are just watching for the fun or the explosions, we were looking at the cars, and the big buildings, the prosperity of the West and these magical places we had never seen before. It opened our minds to the possibility of having this, something to dream about. But it wasn’t just the material things, it was seeing a different way of society functioning, where people could interact normally, where they weren`t afraid that their neighbour was in the secret police. A society where you could follow your dreams rather than having them imposed by the state.
So why Chuck Norris? Why Not Sylvester Stallone?
Well, talking to all of the interviewees, Chuck Norris was coming up all of the time, and he`s also still very popular in Romania. In street demonstrations, you still have people with “What Would Chuck Norris Do?” banners… He has this kind of presence in the Romanian psyche. He also represents the all-American hero; his films were all very pro-America, and there was almost this undertone in the films that suggested the directors were hoping they would make their way through the Iron Curtain and that they would have a role in the revolution!
You can check out our review of the film here