Why you should care

Because VHS tapes can fast-forward history. 

VHS tapes aren’t normally thought of as weapons of the oppressed, but communist Romania was a special case. Nicolae Ceaușescu reigned over the Central European nation for nearly a quarter-century between 1965 and his death by firing squad a few days before Christmas 1989, with resistance building ever more during his final years in power. This came from all corners, including bootleg copies of Hollywood movies. The gradual effect these films had on the populace was powerful in spite of how inconsequential it might have appeared — or, as one interviewee in Chuck Norris vs. Communism would have it, “It’s because they were deemed trivial that they had such a big impact.”

Ilinca Calugareanu was 6 years old when her parents first acquired a VCR, and like many others, she sought refuge in the glowing images it provided. Her documentary about this phenomenon is expanded from a short she made for the The New York Times bearing the more accurate titleVHS vs. Communism. The state strictly monitored all television broadcasts, and the few movies that aired via official channels were heavily censored. The demand for unfiltered cinema was there; naturally, a subversive supply chain followed.

People wondered what she looked like, speculated as to her true identity, made up stories about her.

Except it wasn’t entirely unfiltered. Literally thousands of these imports were dubbed by a woman named Irina Nistor, who quickly emerges as Chuck Norris vs. Communism’s de facto hero. Working within the strictures of an unpredictable regime, she ended up serving as the literal voice of the people. Nistor was also proof that there was life beyond what the people watching at home experienced on a day-to-day basis; that she was faceless only made her a more powerful figurehead. She could literally be anyone.

Interviewee after interviewee speaks of the effect this unseen presence had on their lives. It’s almost enough to redefine “movie magic.” So familiar and comforting was her high-pitched voice, which filled in for everyone from Robert De Niro to Kim Novak, that coming across a tape dubbed by someone else was tantamount to an early version of the uncanny valley.

Nistor was so indirectly omnipresent, in fact, that her voice literally became the most recognizable one in the country after Ceaușescu’s. People wondered what she looked like, speculated as to her true identity, made up stories about her. She was as mythic as the Hollywood movie stars, but, unlike them, she was a fellow Romanian enduring the same highs and lows as her audience. Calugareanu’s subjects describe Nistor with a genuine fondness, and the filmmaker wisely holds off on showing the woman herself until we’ve had time to form our own image of her.

To be sure, few of the men and women involved in the illicit smuggling of clamshell cases through security checkpoints did so to undermine the government. They were fulfilling a need, which in this case happened to be Dirty Dancing and action flicks. But seeing a glamorized version of the West — even one filtered through the sensibilities of a dubber who never liked to curse or make explicit references to sex — had a cumulative effect that was all the more remarkable for how unintentional it was.

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