HotDocs – Day 6: Chuck Norris vs. Communism/War of Lies

Irina Nistor, the real hero of Chuck Norris vs. Communism.
Irina Nistor, the real hero of Chuck Norris vs. Communism.

Chuck Norris vs. Communism (Romania/USA, 2015): A usually successful strategy to make a documentary is to take a very specific phenomenon and see how it relates to a larger movement. The terrific doc Chuck Norris vs. Communism takes this approach and runs with it, with the added bonus of one fascinating subject.

During the Eighties, the only way to have access to American movies in Romania was through counterfeit VHS tapes. Western-made films were deemed detrimental to Ceausescu’s establishment and contradicted the Communist Manifesto. But the growing popularity of VCRs and a booming black market allowed the unhappy population access to Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Norris’ finest. Not only this trend undermined the oppressive regime, it may have played a part in the movement that toppled the government in 1989.

One of the bootleg chain links steals the movie: Irina Nistor. While maintaining a government day job, Nistor managed to translate over 3,000 movies (she didn’t dubbed them, just added an additional voice track to the original sound). Her voice became a staple for an entire generation of kids, who ended up associating it with the notions of insurgence and freedom.

Chuck Norris vs. Communism is canny enough to keep Nistor out of sight until the end and let those who lived through the events depicted in the film tell the story. This doc is a testament to the power of community. Four and a half prairie dogs.

War of Lies (Germany, 2014): Ever wondered about the origins of the materials Colin Powell presented to the UN in 2003, when making his case to invade Iraq? According to the official narrative, the source was Rafed Aljanabi, a chemical engineer who worked at a weapons manufacture facility in Iraq. Aljanabi wilfully collaborated with German intelligence and the CIA to give the US an excuse to bring down Saddam Hussein, or so most news sources declared.

According to War of Lies, there was more to the story, mostly that the engineer was more ambivalent about his role in the conspiracy, and that the information he provided (later demonstrated to be false) was at the specific request of his liaison with the intelligence services.

Director Matthias Bittner tracked down Aljanabi and convinced him to participate in a feature-length interview. While his tale is damning, Rafed comes across as self-serving and arrogant. By excusing his actions as “means to an end” (Saddam’s fall), he exhibits the same moral relativism than those who supposedly coerced him into lying.

Bittner in turn doesn’t try hard enough to poke holes into Aljanabi’s story (his testimony is the only one in the film), and his continuous efforts to get Rafed to reconsider the morality of his actions -which led to a war that has caused thousands of casualties- amount to very little. Two prairie dogs.

Author: Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Journalist, film critic, documentary filmmaker, and sometimes nice guy. Member of the Vancouver Film Critics Circle. Like horror flicks, long walks on the beach and candlelight dinners. Allergic to cats.