Sunday 5 July 2015

Chuck Norris versus Communism

This HBO documentary, presented via Brett Ratner, presents an account of the distinctive video culture that emerged in Romania in the final years of the Ceacescu regime via a combination of interviews and reconstructions with both ordinary people and key figures in the samizdat video scene.

Up until the mid-1980s Romanian audiences had little access to western media. What was available was heavily censored by the authorities, sometimes for reasons that made sense only to them. One reconstruction, for example, presents the screening of a breakfast scene from a Hollywood film. The scene is cut because the amount of food on the table was in excess of what would be found in a comparable Romanian scenario and painted communism in a negative light vis a vis capitalism.

The VCR – imported and costing about the same as a car – changed this as a clandestine network of dubbing, duping, distributing and front room home screenings developed. Sometimes the multiple-generation copy would be so bad that viewers had to rely upon the dubbing track to tell what was going on, while the threat of a visit from the authorities was ever-present.

The main weaknesses of the documentary are the over-use of reconstructions and some failures of explanation. For instance, was not clear how everybody of a certain age seemed to know the name of one of the most prolific video dubbers, Irina Nistor, when the authorities apparently did not, all the more so since in her day job she worked for the regime.

I would also like to have had a bit more contextualisation and comparison. We see that the Romanian dubbing culture was one where an individual, male or female, would do all of the voices, providing a running translation of the English dialogue, but are not told whether this was standard practice. We also see that swear words would be replaced – which makes for amusing viewing when the film in question is De Palma’s Scarface – but are not told if this mirrored official practice and/or was a means of attempting to make the films family-friendly.

These things said, Chuck Norris versus Communism is worth watching for anyone with an interest in global video cultures. One parallel with the British case, for example, is how the act of banning something – Hollywood product there, the video nasties here – serves only to make it that more appealing.