Q&A: Ilinca Calugareanu on the Cinematic Tribute of ‘Chuck Norris Vs Communism’

In the 1980s, the last decade before the revolution overthrew communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania was marred by intense austerity, isolationism and a pervasive cultural blackout. For the oppressed population, a new form of escapism emerged: illicit video nights in which smuggled Western films were shown. The majority of the films were dubbed by the same person, Irina Nistor, one of the most recognizable voices in pre-revolution Romania. First-time director Ilinca Calugareanu’s endearing and entertaining documentary CHUCK NORRIS VS COMMUNISM shows how the magic of film created an awakening that helped to instill the seeds of the revolution.

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CHUCK NORRIS VS COMMUNISM is a feature adaptation of your own short film, VHS VS COMMUNISM. What were you able to explore in the feature that you weren’t with the short format?

Ilinca Calugareanu: The short contains the seeds of the feature’s narrative structure. We made it halfway through production on the feature, and it was incredibly helpful for me and the whole team. It confirmed that people are fascinated by the story and want to see more. It gave us the energy boost we needed to keep fighting to make the feature.

In the feature we were able to go much more in depth, of course, and fully explore the story of the VHS tapes smuggled into Romania, as well as the characters who were part of it. We were also able to take the interviews further and bring them back to life with reenactments.

As the writer/director, what was the genesis of this project? Was this a story you always wanted to tell?

Ilinca Calugareanu: I grew up watching films dubbed by Irina, the heroine of the documentary, but I never thought to make a film about her. It was 4 years ago when I met her at a film festival in London and heard her speak during a Q&A; I was taken back in time and I remembered all my viewing experiences. I was telling British friends about her, how amazing she was and the thousands of films she dubbed. Halfway through my star-struck ramble I realized that this was such an amazing story, I had to make a film about it.


Can you share a bit about your own experiences watching prohibited, dubbed films during the era you portray in the film?

Ilinca Calugareanu: My parents didn’t have a VCR in the 80s. It was very difficult to source one, as you couldn’t buy them from shops. You had to have connections in the West, and also they cost as much as a new car. But my parents did take me to a few late night screenings, like those portrayed in the film. And I still remember how I felt every time I stepped into a screening room. It was a magical, forbidden world, where I felt I could almost touch the West.

In the film, your use of reenactments transports the audience back to this secretive moment in time. Can you talk a bit about this choice, and what your goals were?

Ilinca Calugareanu: For the first two years I shot interviews and explored several avenues to best tell the story. The material we got from the interviews was great and allowed me to build a narrative backbone for the film, but I knew I needed something else to grab and immerse the audience in a long past decade and to explore the interviewees’ stories and their subjectivity further. Also, CHUCK NORRIS VS COMMUNISM is a film about films and the power they have to affect us, so I wanted the reenactments to pay tribute to the films that lit our imagination in the 80s. So there are film references in all the departments—camera, production design, music and even sound design.


Now that your feature film debut is behind you, do you have one piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers?

Ilinca Calugareanu: I think the most important lesson I learned, and the most obvious one, is to never give up fighting for the story and your vision. We went through such a roller coaster financing the film—there was a lot of waiting and hoping, when the whole crew was aching to shoot. But I think that is part of the test, of finding out if you care enough for a project, for a story to not let go of it.

What would you like HIFF audiences to take away from your film?

Ilinca Calugareanu: I hope that they will embark on the ride and allow themselves to be immersed in the narrative. I hope they will be reminded of the first time they watched a film and fell in love with it, of the power films hold over our imagination and even over our actions.

What are you most looking forward to about being in Competition at HIFF 2015?

Ilinca Calugareanu: Sharing the film with new audiences, talking about it during Q&As and learning about others’ memorable film experiences.

CHUCK NORRIS VS COMMUNISM will have its New York Premiere in Competition at HIFF 2015. Follow the film on Facebook and Twitter. Find tickets.

Ilinca-CalugareanuIlinca Calugareanu is a London-based Romanian director and editor. She studied filmmaking at Manchester’s Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology. She recently completed her debut feature film CHUCK NORRIS VS COMMUNISM, which premiered at Sundance 2015. Ilinca is interested in compelling and surprising stories and in pushing the boundaries of dynamic storytelling.