Movies Are Prayers by Josh Larsen, Free for CAPC Members
In Movies Are Prayers, Josh Larsen exemplifies how critical engagement with a film can be an act of neighbor-love.
Animals speak, conspire, and plot to overthrow a farmer in George Orwell’s fable Animal Farm. And in his nearly prophetic novel 1984, Orwell presents a world filled with thought police, revised history books, and surveillance from an entity called Big Brother. The concepts in these constructed literary worlds are bizarre and unrealistic, but the alternate realities hide real truths. These are the worlds buried beneath some of our past, present, and possibly future cultural and political ideologies.
As Christians living in our culture, we especially must not discount the important role artistic media play in inspiring change in society.Orwell poses the “What ifs?” of our time in his prophecies of doom. He sheds light on the world around us, picturing for us a completely censored and controlled culture, a world in which people are told: “You must read this and not that, you must watch this and not that, and you must think this and not that.” These made up worlds are in reality representations of our world and its history. For many countries, this was the world in which they lived; it was not made up. People felt this reality in their own lives: the reality of being watched, interrogated, reported, and being told what to think, the thick fog of paranoia blocking their vision, while their very words were censored. This was (and in some countries still is) the world of communism.
The western world (particularly the United States) has directly interacted with the leaders/dictators who promote this ideology. We were involved in the Vietnam War, the Korean War, and we played major roles in the Cold War. But in 1989 the downfall of communism in Romania was planted by a small seed from the west. The United States played an indirect role this time and unknowingly sparked a revolution in Romanian hearts. The revolution didn’t involve weapons, armies, missiles, invasions, or financial aid—it came on reels of film from the Hollywood hills.
Nicolae Ceaușescu was the communist leader in 1980s Romania. Under his dictatorship Romania saw stricter social control in the ’80s. In his article for The Verge, Bryan Bishop writes, “In the 1980s, Romania was locked down under the Communist regiment of Nicolae Ceaușescu . News and media were strictly controlled, the country’s secret police used violence and intimidation to tamp down all dissent, and any entertainment from other countries was chopped up and censored before being made available to Romanian citizens, if at all.”
Another way Ceaușescu controlled media was by limiting TV to one channel for two hours per day. VCR players and VHS tapes of American movies were illegal. But there was one Romanian man, Teodor Zamfir, who smuggled movies behind the Iron Curtain. Zamfir sought the help of a translator on the government’s censorship board, Irina Nistor, who dubbed the films for him. Romanian filmmaker, Ilinca Calugareanu—in her documentary Chuck Norris vs. Communism—examines the phenomenon Zamfir and Nistor created amongst the Romanian people. In an interview with PBS, Calugareanu says the documentary “is about film and the power it has to affect us.”
Paranoia was erupting under government pressure, but it didn’t stop Romanians from wanting to watch American films. Calugareanu claims it was in the midst of this political paranoia that the seeds of revolution were planted. A forbidden underground culture was forming in Romania; no matter how the dictator tried to squash, control, and regulate it, culture was still happening. There was another voice ringing in Romanian ears instead of Ceaușescu —the voice of Irina Nistor, who dubbed 3,000 movies before the fall of communism in 1989. In the documentary, Nistor explains why she chose to engage in risky behavior: “It was a way to be free and to spite the regime, it was a way to win a battle, however small.
“Those films were my oxygen,” says Nistor. “The main thing was I could watch films and keep in touch with the world . . . It was like escaping from jail.” Near the end of the documentary Nistor adds, “Later on people told me that it gave them courage. That they associated my voice with the idea of freedom and the idea of hope.”
What was it about American film that inspired freedom and hope for the Romanian people? First of all, Romanians saw heroes in American film. In Lewis Beale’s article for The Daily Beast, Calugareanu maintains, “Things were so terrible in Romania at the time, and people wanted action, and they saw these heroes—Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Bruce Lee—who could change things.” In the documentary, one interviewee explains how Rocky inspired him to get bigger and stronger. He would wake up at 5:00 a.m., crack raw eggs into a cup, and force them down his throat; then he would layer up and sweat through his long run. Calugareanu reenacts another scene in which young children practice their karate kicks like Van Damme and Bruce Lee. “We started to want to become heroes,” says one man interviewed in the documentary. In an article for PopMatters, Cynthia Fuchs notes, “They found in Rambo and Chuck Norris heroes of remarkable courage, models for resistance, for beating odds and triumphing over adversity.” Heroes and their stories inspired the Romanian people’s bleak daily lives.
The films were also telling stories of the western world. “People were looking at the material aspects a lot,” says Calugareanu. “The big houses, swimming pools, cars. But beyond that, they were looking at how people were interacting freely in the West. One of my interviewees said he could see people having normal conversations without being afraid of the impact.” Romanian people were watching a world outside of their own; they were seeing a difference. Stories played on VHS were giving Romanians a taste of freedom.
Heroes and stories from the west were bringing Romania together into a tighter community. Romanians were sharing these illegal experiences in secret movie showings. They were starting a powerful underground movement that would eventually break to the surface. People were banding together in community, and film was the medium that fused them. This illegal film movement helped solidify a form of control for the Romanian people; watching a movie was a secret act of rebellion towards the oppressor. Lastly, the films gave Romanians purpose in a dreary world. It was the animated voice of Irina Nistor that gave life to Romania and proved more powerful than the voice of Ceaușescu. Zamfir, the man who began the illegal smuggling of VHS tapes, says this in the documentary:
During a dictatorship which had controlled everything, they lost control of something that seemed insignificant—the video tape.
But it wasn’t insignificant. Calugareanu says in her interview with The Daily Beast, “We realized, during our research, that this phenomenon was going on in other Eastern Bloc countries. It was a general phenomenon of trying to get information from the West. It speaks to the power of media and pop culture.”
Film might not have been the only thing to propel the forward movement of revolution and the collapse of the communist regime in Romania, but Calugareanu’s documentary provides a strong case for the significant role film played at the time. For those of us who do not live under communism today, the documentary shows us the importance of culture and the artistic mediums within it. As Christians living in our culture, we especially must not discount the important role artistic mediums play in inspiring change in society. Though we are not oppressed in the way Romanians were under communism, we do take for granted the power of any artistic medium—film included—as a legitimate vehicle for social reform. Might we see some revolutions in our nation if we took artistic mediums—like film—as seriously as the Romanians did? Calugareanu says, “Ultimately, I would hope that our documentary raises questions about the power of film to affect us and even make us act.”
The Jews in Jesus’s day expected the Messiah to make significant political strides on their behalf against their Roman oppressors. But Jesus did not come to reform their politics; instead he used stories—parables—and vivid images found in metaphors to tell them the truth about himself. Jesus chose artistic mediums to teach and reveal things about God. The Romanian people found hope in stories and heroes; even the stunts of an action hero like Chuck Norris had the power to inspire change. The reason heroes and stories are such powerful provocations of inspiration and reform is that they are shadows of Jesus and the story he came to fulfill. And this story isn’t over yet. Let’s keep telling it and showing it better and better through art and film. As Irina Nistor says, “People need stories, no?”
For as low as $5/month, you’ll get access to free offerings from creators and authors we love, exclusive access to our member’s only forum, and exclusive content and podcasts — and you’ll help ensure that CAPC keeps getting better and better.