'Chuck Norris vs. Communism': How American movies helped overthrow Romanian regime

Kevin Williams

 (Kevin Williams)

For most, Hollywood movies exist simply to entertain. But for those living under the oppressive Nicolae Ceausescu dictatorship in 1980's Romania, smuggled American VHS tapes gave people there an important glimpse of the outside world and the hope that there was something better out there for them.

"We wanted to shine a light into a more serious decade in Romanian history," director Ilinca Calugareanu told FOX411 at the Sundance Film Festival's premiere of her documentary "Chuck Norris vs. Communism" on Friday. "Movies gave people a picture of the world they wanted to have but never could have dreamed about. People could also see normal interaction between people without the fear that comes with living under a dictatorship."

Air Force veteran turned actor and martial artist /actor Chuck Norris serves as a metaphor in the film for strength and heroism.

"He was one of the most popular action stars in the VHS films smuggled into Romania," Calugareanu explained. "He was a good icon for the American films, his films gave a clear concept between good and bad and that fascinated people."

Hiding from the Secret Police, dozens of locals would crowd into homes that were fortunate enough to own a VHS player, devouring four or five films at a time well into the night. They also fell in love with one female voice in particular, a voice that translated and dubbed over 3,000 smuggled foreign films.

That voice belonged to Irina Nistor, who worked for the government-run television station and was quietly recruited on the sly to dub the incoming movies in her off-hours.

"I want people to find out how important it is for people to watch movies," Nistor told us after the film's Sundance premiere. "And how movies can change a life, and even a dictatorship."

Nistor's voice and the smuggled movies became the gateway to freedom -- to the forbidden West -- a world of fast cars, denim jeans, Coca-Cola and capitalism. According to the documentary, American films helped bring about the revolution in 1989 which paved the way to overthrow the Ceausescu regime.

"Movies planted the seeds of freedom," one film subject explained. "Video tapes set the communist regime off-balance."

Other Romanians referred to those contraband Hollywood productions as their oxygen and lifeblood, and as a realization of how far behind the West and how culturally isolated their Eastern European nation had become.

"It felt amazing to do something illegal during communism," one man recalled. "Something not communist... Watching an American movie was like escaping from jail."

Hollie McKay has been a staff reporter since 2007. She has reported extensively from the Middle East on the rise and fall of terrorist groups such as ISIS in Iraq. Follow her on twitter at @holliesmckay