Going to the cinema is like returning to the womb; you sit there still and meditative in the darkness, waiting for life to appear on the screen. – Federico Fellini
People need stories, no? – Irina Nestor
Scrolling through the list of documentaries on Netflix the other night, I came across Chuck Norris vs. Communism. I’m not exactly the target audience for most Chuck Norris jokes, but I am the target audience for film and Soviet history. So I clicked.
In short, the movie explores Romania in the late 1980’s and, since the government censored what media was and was not available to citizens, illegal film screenings. Western films were smuggled in and those able to get their hands on the movies would host movie nights in their homes, secretly organized in apartment buildings and amongst neighbors. Because the activity was illegal, there was a lot of fear of being reported to the secret service and yet the desire to see what the world was like “out there” outweighed that fear.
The documentary centered around the one woman who dubbed these films, Irina Nestor. The people the filmmakers interviewed spoke about her with such affection, as if she’d sat in their homes with them, dubbing the movies live. Her voice became a familiar presence and everyone had constructed their own image of what she looked like to the extent that she almost seemed like a mythical creature. Instead, she was just a regular woman who enjoyed film and the opportunity to perform small acts of rebellion.
What I loved most about Chuck Norris vs. Communism is that it reminded me of that magical feeling you get when watching a movie. When you sit down in your living room or in a theatre, the lights low, and you enter into a completely different world. I love going to the movies by myself and, frequently, will spend the next few hours alone processing the relationships I formed with the characters in the movie.
In high school, I took a film history class as one of my electives. I’d already grown increasingly interested in classic films — James Dean’s movies were a natural match for my requisite teen angst — and thought the class would be interesting. We watched a lot of films I wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise, discussed classics, explored techniques in filmmaking and storytelling, as well as the historical impact of various films.
However, the power of the media was most apparent when I walked into class on September 11, 2001. In my high school, we were not allowed to watch the news and there were no announcements made about the events that day. I found out about the attacks on the World Trade Centers about an hour after they happened because I stopped in my mother’s office during one of my breaks. I didn’t know why she was crying.
The school tried to protect its students by not telling us what was going on, but you can’t hide history. So as I sat down at my desk, still shocked by the news, my film history teacher announced, “We’re not watching a movie today.” Instead, he turned the projector to CNN. We were students, we were in school to learn, and he would not prevent us from seeing history, no matter how brutal, as it happened. And when someone knocked on the classroom door? He’d switch back to a benign documentary.
I always admired my teacher for standing by his ideals, and everything he taught us in our class. Media is powerful. What is and is not shared via television and film shapes us — as a people, and as a culture. Something as small as watching CNN on Sept. 11th in a high school, or watching Rocky in your neighbor’s apartment, is actually not so small at all.
I think movies are magic, and I think the magic of movies provides a freedom unlike any other art form, especially for viewers. I love the idea of any art that interrupts daily life and creates cracks in our worldview. Cracks just big enough to see through repression and censorship. Cracks just big enough to see all the way through to revolutions influenced by human creativity and our sheer determination as people to connect with one another, in person and through art, no matter the consequences.