In the 1980s, the Romanian people were under the rule of an unbelievably harsh regime which removed any form of entertainment or sense of personal freedom from their lives. But through an incredible underground circuit of pirated VHS tapes, select Romanians were able to find a viable mode of escape. It enabled them to extract themselves from a decidedly hapless situation, if only for a runtime of an hour and some change.
The team of a man named Zamfir and his translator colleague Irina Nistor were instrumental in establishing this clandestine distribution of bootleg analog treasures. Their operation was illegal, dangerous, stunningly complex, and utterly necessary. Their intrepid efforts were surreptitiously giving a body of people hope.
The crew painstakingly smuggled, re-dubbed and unleashed a sprawling horde of American films into Romanian homes featuring everything from the titular Chuck Norris flicks to the low-budget trashterpieces that are revered within the pages of LUNCHMEAT.
And now, someone has decided to fully document this underground phenomenon, shedding light on perhaps one of the most intriguing, fascinating and just plain awesome instances of concealed rebellion in the history of governmental oppression. That someone is Ilinca Calugareanu.
Ilinca Calugareanu is a London based Romanian documentary filmmaker who has studied at Manchester’s Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology in the UK. With an absolute disinclination for writing essays, Calugareanu decided to move her efforts toward filmmaking. She’s since directed a number of shorts, including The Writing on the Wall (2006, Romania) and Endgames (2008, UK) which have been screened worldwide. Also, for the past five years, Calugareanu has been working as an editor for fictional and documentary short films.
Ilinca grew up watching animation dubbed by Irina Nistor and surrounded herself with an army of pirated tapes procured by her parents through Romania’s underground circuit. She recalls the magical aspect of the seeing these films, and how they allowed her to escape from an unsavory world. She explains, “It was Irina’s voice that guided me through the world of film and made me fall in love with it. I was quite young then and I didn’t understand much of what was going on around me. Getting to watch films dubbed by her was like a miracle. I didn’t know where the tapes came from or who the funny voice in the black box was.”
Years later, in 2011, she ran into Irina Nistor at a film festival and the nostalgia simply overtook her. The meeting had inspired Calugareanu to endeavor to create Chuck Norris VS Communism. Ilinca states: “Our encounter brought back all those memories of my childhood and the need to understand… this film stems from wanting to reconstruct the past and to find out everything about that voice and the people who made it possible for it to reach me.”
So, how did Calugareanu go about tracking down all of the people to interview and share their experience of this miraculous analog infiltration, especially after all these years? Calugareanu says it’s not easy; but her team’s diligence has paid off, and has brought about more connections in the process: “It was and still is an intensive part of our research. We searched online for any mention of Irina [Nistor], the VHS tapes and Romania; we approached people on forums, blogs, Facebook groups and Twitter. And from those interviews we learned of other people who watched the tapes or were involved in the production/distribution of the pirated VHS tapes.”
Chuck Norris VS. Communism is currently in production. Calugareanu’s crew has completed footage shot back in march in the city of Bucharest, and she plans to return there this autumn for another round of shooting, coupled with some traveling around Romania to capture footage in surrounding cities.
The film’s budget is rather high for an independent documentary, but as Ilinca explains, it’s something that’s necessary in order to really develop the world she wants to convey: “The budget is quite high [at] £350.000, but this is mostly due to the high cost of copyright clearance. I want to use as many clips from the dubbed movies as necessary and recreate the atmosphere of those secret viewing marathons.”
So, just how bad was it in communist Romania in the 80s? Well, one anecdote from Ilinca can give you a stark vision of the somehow comedic adventure(s) that occurred, even just to procure a VCR: “In the communist 80s, VCRs were officially inexistent in Romania. It was incredibly difficult to get one and you usually had to have relatives abroad to send you one or had to know airplane pilots or sailors: the few people who were allowed to travel outside Romania. They were also very expensive; hard to believe today, but people paid as much as for a new car to buy a VCR. But one of our interviewees found an ingenious way to source VCRs. He started to breed Chihuahuas. He would then hide them in thermos flasks whilst crossing the border and traveling to Germany where he’d exchange 3 puppies for 2 VCRs!”
Now, that story is sure to induce its fair share of hearty chuckles (and perhaps maybe even some shock), but it’s inarguable that the 80s were indeed some of the hardest, most oppressive times Romania had ever experienced. The communist dictator Ceausescu, who had been in power since 1965, had gone practically berserk, obsessing about repaying western loans and crafting one of the most extravagant palaces ever to exist. His rule would become infamous, even among the Soviet bloc.
And though the documentary must explore all of these dark and uninviting aspects to properly insert us into their world, there is a lighter, uplifting side to the story. It’s a side that reveals a sort of appreciation for the past, if only because it exemplifies how a body of people could overcome such turmoil which once beset their nation. As Ilinca explains, spinning the viewpoint can almost be cathartic: “We are now at the stage when enough time has passed since the fall of communism in Romania. We can distance ourselves from this very oppressive past and see the lighter, more amusing shades of those times. So, instead of focusing on what was a harsh regime, I want to make a film that brings into the spotlight the way people dealt with their very difficult situation creatively and speak of the Eastern bloc and our history in a manner that is light and entertaining… There will be a lot of humor in the film; it’s almost impossible not to have that when talking of Van Damme, Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee as national heroes and when bringing amazing 80s B-films back to life.”
And those were the luminaries who clandestinely graced their TV screens: the big action stars whose names are emblazoned on our American brains and collective culture. But I was curious to know if there were other films beyond the action and blockbuster persuasion included in this incredible secret; I wanted to know how the selection process even occurred. Ilinca clued me in: “The VHS movement was very complex. The main player was definitely Zamfir, who appears in the trailer as a mysterious voice. He developed a national empire, smuggling tapes into the country, employing Irina as his dubber and distributing the tapes throughout the country. He would bring any movies he could get his hands on. The only thing he refused to distribute was porn. So he had the widest, strangest collection of movies, from Megaforce to Taxi Driver, from Ninja Death Squad to Brazil, from low-budget horror films to Hollywood blockbusters. There were also a few other smaller underground distributors and collectors, although it was quite difficult to be a collector then. Blank tapes were hard to find and very expensive. One tape cost around a third of the average monthly wage, so even the most impassioned collectors had to reuse tapes and record over beloved movies.”
And I thought the modern day VHS collectors had it rough with the currently insane online prices. Looks like folks were willing to pay a serious bundle for tapes all the way back then, too. Of course, there were indeed extenuating circumstances, but there are decidedly more similarities than dissimilarities that exist between the Romanian videophiles of yore and the modern day Videovore. And realistically, how could we expect anything less? Calugareanu tells us about one particular interviewee that seems to fully relate to the essence of why we adore the format, and also to the quest for an analog Holy Grail. She elucidates, “One of our interviewees still has his VCR and many of the tapes from the 80s. He is still a huge fan of the medium and finds the blurred, soft texture of VHS irreplaceable. His favorites were all the B-Movies, Ninja, Kung-Fu… all types of exploitation and horror films. His biggest regret is not being able to watch one of the Shaw Brothers films from the Pai-Mei trilogy. After months of intense efforts he managed to source it and was ready for his dream viewing, but the VCR wouldn’t play it as it was a NTSC tape…”
So just how many flicks did Irina Nistor translate while working with Zamfir over the years? The number, and her tenacity and talent for the art, is rather staggering. Ilinca informs, “She translated over 5,000 movies. Her personal best is 10 films in one day. She dubbed all of them at first sight. There wasn’t time for pre-views as the competition could’ve released the film quicker. And Irina couldn’t stop, pause or rewind the tape. The technology they used was very basic and she would have to start from the beginning if she stopped the tape. Zamfir paid her, but it was a small fee compared to the huge sums he earned, so it definitely was a labor of love. She loved films and still does, as today she is a respected film critic in Romania, traveling to all film festivals in Europe.”
And, as you may have guessed, Ilinca is a big fan of the VHS format. Not only because it provided a world of escape in a time when it was most needed, but she also has great affection for a lot of the same idiosyncrasies Videovores hold dear. Ilinca explains: “I think [VHS] offers a completely different experience of watching a film because of the texture, the imperfections, the changes in the quality of sound and image. And they only get better with time. For me, like for many children of the 70s and 80s, the VHS format also brings back memories of childhood and of discovering so many new worlds through the VCR.”
Calugareanu has also recognized a distinct resurgence of people interested in VHS, chiefly fueled by an acute nostalgia. And, as she observes, it’s expanding: “Through the research we did for the film we came across many VHS related websites, blogs and groups… many more than what we expected. So I think there is definitely a strong community out there. And the community seems to be growing… maybe because of the whole 80s nostalgia, the resurgence of the fashion, music, films, etc., and the VHS format was a big part of that.”
So when can we expect to see this incredible documentation of Romania’s secret entertainment history? Calugareanu plans to have it ready by September of 2013, and is hoping for a long life of festival screenings. And, because of the nature of the film, she’s also aiming for a theatrical run and a worldwide DVD release. Even with all of these plans in the works, Calugareanu and crew still fully intend on exercising the film’s integrity, releasing it the way it should be watched: “From the very beginning we planned on a limited VHS edition, dubbed in English by Irina herself, so people could get the full 80s Romanian VHS experience.”
ED. NOTE: Special thanks to Ilinca for taking out the time to share all of this information with me about this amazing and fascinating documentary. LUNCHMEAT will be keeping up with her and her crew as the doc progresses and will let all you Videvores know once it’s ready to be viewed! Groove on, and keep feedin’ that VCR! VHS is Freedom!
You can contact Ilinca about her doc here: ilincacalugareanu at gmail dot com