Irina Margareta Nistor Private Collection
The Irina Margareta Nistor Private Collection includes a series of written documents, together with a few dozen VHS video cassettes preserving a small part of the Western films that were introduced clandestinely into Romania between 1985 and 1989, to be translated and dubbed and then distributed on video cassettes (semi)clandestinely. This collection epitomises a popular culture phenomenon without any equivalent in Eastern Europe, which emerged in Romania as a reaction to the reduction of the official programme broadcast on television channels to just two hours per day and to news broadcasts about the activity of Nicolae Ceauşescu and the leadership of the Romanian Communist Party.
București Strada Dumitru Iorgulescu 11, Romania
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Name of collection
- Irina Margareta Nistor Collection
Provenance and cultural activities
The Irina Margareta Nistor Private Collection is currently in the collector’s own home, and numbers only a few dozen items. Among the objects in the collection are ten notebooks in which all the films that she translated before 1989 are inventoried in chronological order. In addition, approximately forty video cassettes in VHS format are preserved, on which are recorded films brought clandestinely from the West to be translated and dubbed in Romanian by Irina Margareta Nistor and then distributed throughout Romania by means of an informal network. The present composition of the collection symbolises the double character of Irina Margareta Nistor’s collecting activity: on the one hand, she kept information that documents in great detail her entire (semi)clandestine activity of translating Western films, which could have been interrupted at any moment by the communist authorities, while on the other, she only kept a few palpable traces of this activity, without particularly intending to.
It is, as the collector herself tells us, almost by chance that these objects have remained in her possession. The notebooks in which Irina Margareta Nistor conscientiously kept a record of the films were kept by her out of a sort of nostalgia for the work that she did before 1989. On the other hand, the video cassettes were not kept systematically either before or after 1989. It is interesting to note, however, that their value today differs from that in the time of communism, although in neither case is it determined only by the recorded content. Now, the cassettes are museum pieces par excellence, the more so in that their content can no longer be seen so easily, because, from a technical point of view, this storage medium has long been superseded. Before 1989, the cassettes represented a very valuable object of barter. “I had a lot of cassettes at home. They were very precious then when you went to the doctor, for example. But not only there. They were worth quite a lot then. Both in financial terms and as a symbolic good, because they indicated a certain social status,” recalls Irina Margareta Nistor. In other words, in the late 1980s, these video cassettes had become a more sophisticated form of bribe than money precisely because they constituted a cultural product that was accessible only through the intermediary of informal distribution networks.
In view of the above, the cassettes that are preserved today in the Irina Margareta Nistor Private Collection have the value of a small sample in relation to the quantity of material that resulted from her work of translating the Western films that were shown in Romania (semi)clandestinely on video cassettes. “It’s a reasonable figure,” she reckons. “I translated and dubbed about 3,000 films up until 1989. At an average of six or seven films a day. Just once I had ten films in a day. I think that happened at a weekend, when there was that SRL: one free Saturday per month. ‘SRL’ had no connection with what is understood by the term today [i.e. Limited Liability Company (Societate cu Răspundere Limitată)]. It meant Reduced Working Week [Săptămîna Redusă de Lucru]. When this happened, I worked more at my dubbing. There must have been an average of 600 films a year up until 1989, because I didn’t translate films every day. I did them when a package of cassettes came from abroad. For that reason, the real average of my effective work was six to eight films a day.” Thus Irina Margareta Nistor sums up the statistics of her activity before 1989. The translation and dubbing of Western films continued in Romania until 1996, when the adoption of the Copyright Law practically put an end to this business.
Regarding the beginning of this activity, Irina Margareta Nistor recalls: “The story begins in 1985. On a corridor at TVR [Romanian Television], a guy came up to me who was, officially, our fire brigade head. A few decades later, in a documentary film about what I did before 1989, the man told the film-maker that he had “had a mission” and that he wasn’t really the head of the fire brigade. At the time, I wasn’t aware of anything of this sort. He told me there was a man who was interested in finding someone to dub films live for video cassettes. I arrived at the house in question, where there was playing and dubbing equipment. First there was a test – to see how well I knew English. I remember perfectly what film it was – Doctor Zhivago. I had seen the film before, because at that time there were still some clandestine showings at the Archives. With the big shots of those days. Who, of course, didn’t know a word of any foreign language. I saw The Godfather there, for example. It was only later that I realised that the test was just a matter of form. Because in reality the ‘boss’ didn’t know any foreign language, so he had no way of checking whether I was translating correctly or not.”
And she adds, describing a typical day of translating and dubbing in real time: “It was pretty much like this: I came from the Television at half past three, when I finished work. It was very near, in fact. It was across the road from TVR. You just go a little along one street and very soon you find in front of you this house called ‘Petrescu’, which was also my grandmother’s name. I went in there, and I came out when it was time to finish. I did three and a half or four hours non-stop. I stopped for as long as it took to drink a coffee. And then at least the same again. That was my style. I didn’t need long breaks. I like working continuously. I would translate the film from beginning to end. In fact two at a time, because he had already put two on each video cassette. I couldn’t stop, because there were two films on the cassette. It was all at first sight. And it’s not even quite right to say that I was dubbing onto those cassettes; I was doing a voiceover. It’s a voice over something; we can hear the original, and I had to speak, correctly and intelligibly, over those original voices.”
About the main team who, from Bucharest, ensured the production of these cassettes translated and dubbed in Romanian, Irina Margareta Nistor recalls: “There was this gentleman, Mr Zamfir, the one who coordinated the activity there, in that house. Toader Zamfir – that’s his name, and he is absolutely real. And Mircea, the second translator who dubbed video cassettes at that time, was likewise absolutely real. He was the one who translated from German. His story was very interesting. Basically he worked at the GDR embassy. He was also an electronic engineer, an absolutely brilliant guy. He was also called Mihai. Sadly he has died in the meantime. He also got films by satellite, from something that I think was called FilmNet – he got them with difficulty. The people there put a code so the films couldn’t be stolen from there. But Mihai would always break those codes. He broke them every week. He was a very, very clever guy. There were also, in that same house, some people who repaired all the stuff that was there. With the amount of use the equipment got, it broke down sometimes, as was only normal. There was also a cousin of Zamfir’s who was sent, from time to time, to bring films from abroad. Those last people I didn’t know all that well. Or the studio where the cassettes were copied. In fact I stayed almost all the time in the basement – that’s where I translated, where I had sound insulation. I don’t know all that well what happened to the films after that.”
In addition to the activity of translating and dubbing films, it is worth saying something also about the technical support necessary for this activity, which was also procured clandestinely. Under communism, a video cassette could be bought only on the so-called “black market,” i.e. by way of the supply channels of the alternative economy. The price of a video cassette procured in this way was several hundred lei, at a time when the average monthly salary was around 2,000 lei. A recorded video cassette was around 1,000 lei, while a relatively good-quality video apparatus, capable of recording as well as playing, could be bought in the same parallel economy for a colossal sum: around 70,000 lei. (As terms of comparison, a three-room apartment in Bucharest, where the real estate prices were highest, cost at that time approximately 150,000–180,000 lei, and for 70,000 lei one could by a standard Dacia car, the model produced under licence from Renault starting from 1968, almost unchanged in form, at the factories in Piteşti, Argeş county.) Some individuals were only consumers of Western movies, so they made the effort of buying a video player (for around 30-40,000 lei), which they used for their own entertainment watching movies with family and friends. Others, however, earned good money by involving themselves in this scheme of producing and distributing video cassettes with Western movies.
In fact, the entire enterprise was certainly a very lucrative business, but it is hard to evaluate today who those who really managed it were or how much they actually earned. Irina Margareta Nistor can tell us that for a film she translated simultaneously and dubbed, she was paid 200 lei. That sum was equivalent at the time to approximately 8–9 US dollars, taking into account the unofficial exchange rate. She was, however, only an unofficial employee of a what appears to have been a huge clandestine enterprise, which required the existence of an informal network of individuals who performed various tasks. According to Zamfir, who was interviewed for the documentary Chuck Norris vs. Communism, blank video tapes were bought abroad and smuggled into Romania. Then, the movies which Irina Margareta Nistor translated were recorded on these cassettes and hundreds of duplicates were sold throughout Romania. For each county, there was at least one local “dealer” who dealt with the local distribution of these cassettes. Then, there were others who organised “video evenings” at their private residences and asked each participant for an entry fee. Those involved in this business are rather ambiguous about their earnings. A person interviewed for the above-mentioned documentary claims that he earned about 500 lei in for a “video evening” when the average salary was 2000 lei. Nevertheless, those in charge must have earned much more, depending on the number of video cassettes which they were able to sell. In the absence of official statistics, or at least of any that have been made public, it is very likely that in the communist Romania of the 1980s hundreds of thousands of such video cassettes circulated. Thus, the earning must have been really fabulous. This explains the ambiguity of the answers regarding the money and the persons really involved. Zamfir, who was allegedly the prime mover, claims that this business was allowed to function because he was able to bribe some Securitate people by offering them video cassettes, as their wives and children also adored Western movies. He affirms that even Nicu Ceaușescu, the eldest son of the secretary general of the communist party, used to get video cassettes from him. Zamfir also maintains that this arrangement worked because the secret police people did not realise that it had become a mass phenomenon. It is hard to believe that such an enterprise could have worked for years without a more active involvement of some high-ranking secret police people, but there is no evidence in this respect.
In any case, the Irina Margareta Nistor Private Collection documents the existence of a remarkable social phenomenon: the production and distribution of video cassettes of Western films as a type of cultural resistance to the Romanian communist regime. In a special sense, together with the notebooks in which are listed the films translated and dubbed before 1989, and the few dozen cassettes that have remained (almost) by chance in Mrs Nistor’s house, this private collection might be said also to include the voice of Irina Margareta Nistor. Her unmistakeable voice, known to all those who lived in Romania in the 1980s, may be considered a “portable collection item.” According to its owner: “It was and is a passionate voice. Technically speaking, it isn’t a radio voice. It isn’t deep, for example; my voice goes high. I do exercises in my head to give the best translation that I am capable of doing, but also the tonality that suits it best. Sometimes, in some films, I would give two or three solutions for one statement in the original. I had studied foreign languages, and it seemed to me that I was helping the viewer to understand better if I offered some synonyms there. It just came automatically. My voice, to return to it: passionate, hoarse. It is a voice with personality. And I repeat, it’s passionate: at the centre, if you like, is also this passion for film that moves into what I do in connection with a film, dubbing and translating.”
Before 1989, without anyone knowing what the person in question looked like, the voice of the translator of films that circulated (semi)clandestinely in Romania had become a brand in itself, distinct from the voices of the official regime. She had, Irina Margareta Nistor now remarks, a voice that was a sort of salvation for her in those times. “We might say something of this sort. Without my being conscious of it at the time, in these terms. But we can look at it that way, certainly. Now, sometimes, it’s really amusing and indeed very pleasant when someone stops me and says: ‘Oh dear! You know how much your voice resembles the voice of the lady who used to dub films before 1989!’ And I answer promptly: ‘It doesn’t resemble me at all! Because it actually is me!’”
Both the video cassettes in the possession of Irina Margareta Nistor and the notebooks in which are inventoried the films that she translated and dubbed are today famous: they have appeared in a documentary film with wide international circulation, which reconstructed the activity of producing and distributing the (semi)clandestine video cassettes before 1989. The title of the film, Chuck Norris versus Communism, alludes to the fact that many of the cassettes that circulated contained martial arts films, which suggests that the subversive nature of these films did not consist in the first place in their content, but in their Western provenance and the (semi)clandestine circulation of these products of popular culture. As is said in the film by Ioan Gyuri Pascu, one of the members of the satirical troupe Divertis, a group that was active on the interface between the tolerated and the forbidden, and himself a star of the alternative culture of the young generation of the 1980s, watching these films meant doing “something that wasn’t legal in communism, meaning something that wasn’t communist.”
Description of content
The composition of the Irina Margareta Nistor Private Collection has undergone significant fluctuation in the course of time. For this reason, it now includes relatively few items: the notebooks in which are listed the films translated and dubbed by her before 1989, together with a few dozen video cassettes. The video cassettes represented the final product of a project, both profitable in financial terms and discreetly subversive from a social point of view, that was carried out in Romania before 1989. On these VHS-format video cassettes, Western films were copied and then multiplied and distributed by means of an informal network. Irina Margareta Nistor was the emblematic voice that, by dubbing these video cassettes, brought Western cinema into people’s homes and with it that world and the values on which it was founded. Up until the fall of communism in Romania in December 1989, she single-handedly translated and dubbed approximately 3,000 video cassettes. Each of these was multiplied in hundreds or even thousands of copies. Only a small part of Irina Margareta Nistor’s activity as a translator of Western films, which then circulated in Romania by means of (semi)clandestine video cassettes, is reflected in the objects that are now preserved in her private collection. Some of the cassettes were offered as presents, or used as bribes or as objects of barter in the conditions of economic crisis and shortage of basic products that prevailed in Romania in the 1980s. Others their owner discarded because they were in poor condition or no longer of interest, without thinking that they might have any historical value.
Even if now only a few VHS-format video cassettes survive as physical proof of this impressive cultural project, the Irina Margareta Nistor Private Collection also preserves another sort of faithful witness to her activity before 1989: the notebooks in which a record was kept of the films that she translated and dubbed. The collection includes a number of notebooks in a small, friendly format, in which the films translated and dubbed between 1985 and 1989 are entered in ballpoint, pen, or sometimes pencil, in chronological order, by days, months, and years. A summary analysis of these notebooks is enough to show that the majority of the films listed are not great masterpieces of Western cinematography, but so-called “commercial” films. Of these, the greatest number listed in the notebooks are comedies and action and adventure films. Irina Margareta Nistor remarks that she has kept the notebooks out of a sort of nostalgia for the work that she did. She then adds: “and because I’m an orderly person and I like to know what I’ve done and what I have to do.”
In spite of the fact that this collection preserves only some traces of an activity which by its nature may be considered cultural opposition, the video cassettes that are still in Irina Margareta Nistor’s possession and the notebooks in which the films that she translated and dubbed are inventoried are quite famous. They appeared in a documentary film about the way in which these (semi)clandestine video cassettes were made before 1989, which is dedicated to Irina Margareta Nistor and which was distributed internationally under the title Chuck Norris versus Communism as a reminder that even a martial arts film can be subversive.
- manuscripts (ego-documents, diaries, notes, letters, drafts, etc.): 10-99
- video recordings (including oral history recordings): 10-99
Geographical scope of recent operation
Date of founding
Place of founding
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Creator(s) of content
Important events in the history of the collection
- visits by appointments
Călugăreanu, Ilinca. 2015. Chuck Norris versus Communism. Documentary film
Author(s) of this page
- Petrescu, Cristina
- Pătrăşconiu, Cristian Valeriu
Cinemagia. 2016. “Ana Maria Moldovan, interpreta Irinei Margareta Nistor în Chuck Norris vs Communism: ‘Tata a fost închis [în comunism] pentru că [...] a încercat să îndrepte niște lucruri’” (Ana Maria Moldovan, the actress who played Irina Margareta Nistor in Chuck Norris vs Communism: ‘Father was imprisoned [under communism] because he tried to do things right). Last modified June 21. Accessed June 29, 2017. https://m.cinemagia.ro/stiri/ana-maria-moldovan-interpreta-irinei-margareta-nistor-in-chuck-norris-vs-33659/
Gillet, Kit. 2014. “The voice that brought Hollywood films to communist Romania’s TV screens.” The Guardian, December 25. Accessed June 29, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/25/hollywood-film-communist-romania-video-dub-irina-margareta-nistor
Călugăreanu. Ilinca. 2014. “VHS vs Communism.” The New York Times – The Opinion Pages, February 17. Accessed June 29, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/18/opinion/vhs-vs-communism.html?mcubz=0
Florescu, Remus. 2014. “’Chuck Norris vs Comunism’ sau cum a câştigat Irina Nistor lupta cu Ceauşescu” (‘Chuck Norris vs Communism or how did Irina Nistor win the fight with Ceaușescu). Adevărul de Cluj-Napoca, July 28. Accessed June 29, 2017. http://adevarul.ro/locale/cluj-napoca/chuck-norris-vs-comunism-castigat-irina-nistor-lupta-ceausescu-1_53d673a70d133766a8d02a35/index.html
Nistor, Irina Margareta, interview by Pătrăşconiu, Cristian Valeriu , December 16, 2016. COURAGE Registry Oral History Collection