Somebody once said that all art is propaganda, but not all propaganda is art. In Romania, the state government ran two television channels from 1968-1985, at which point they went down to one channel. Cable had barely been installed in America, nevertheless Communist Romania. All culture went through the communist government. Enter VHS. Even though Romania outlawed the VCR, movies on home video are consumed in private. Suddenly, there was a huge black market for illegal western cinema on overly copied VHS tapes, most of which were dubbed over by a single voice: Irina. Because of her central role, Irina became the voice of freedom.
Even though Irina Vs. Communism would be a far more appropriate title, the jingoistic title Chuck Norris Vs. Communism obviously makes a great point about propaganda in one culture becoming art in another. Director Ilinca Calugareanu unearths a country behind the iron curtain where a single crack turns into a flood turns into Romania’s own cultural revolution. But, Chuck Norris Vs. Communism is the second documentary about similar cultural instances. In 2009, Disco and Atomic War (available on Fandor) hilariously documented the same cultural revolution happening in Estonia when they discovered they could receive television signals from Helsinki, about 80km away. Suddenly, sections of Estonia had access to the likes of Emmanuelle, causing people to go to hilarious ends to fulfill their pop culture requirements.
Calugareanu examines how pop culture influences our lives, and how people crave more than just the experiences designed for them. Still, Chuck Norris Vs. Communism is smart enough to know that American movies aren’t enough to single-handedly start a revolution. It weaves the cultural and economic climate that also disenfranchised people, with the Communist leader Nicolae Ceaușescu spending more on his cult of personality than on feeding his country. Many of the world’s leaders understand the importance of mass culture as a form of controlling the people. Yet, they frequently underestimate the need for variety and quality.
Chuck Norris vs. Communism is available streaming on PBS. Tonight, Independent Lens premieres Autism in Love.