The Romanian Woman Who Secretly Voiced Western Movies

“If someone had a VCR, his apartment would become a real cinema for the neighbors—they sold tickets and gave out roasted sunflower seeds. We didn’t have popcorn.” —Irina Margareta Nistor, translator

In A Nutshell

In the 1980s, Romanian cinema and TV were heavily censored by the Communist Party. However, people still watched illegal VHS tapes on outrageously expensive VCRs. Of course, most of these movies were in English, but fortunately, they were all dubbed by one woman. Her name was Irina Margareta Nistor, and she eventually became the best-known voice in Romania.

The Whole Bushel

In this age of instant streaming, most of us probably take movies for granted. Even back in the 1980s, Westerners could watch a film any time they wanted, thanks to theaters and the burgeoning VHS industry. Things weren’t quite so easy in communist Romania. Under the iron—and rather crazy—fist of Nicolae Ceausescu, Romanian theaters were pretty dull. Native films were all about promoting a world where the workers were happy, the country was prosperous, and everything was bright and sunny . . . which couldn’t be further from the truth.

Television wasn’t much better. If you were to switch on a Romanian TV set, you might watch about two hours of boring propaganda before the station went to static. And if you wanted to watch an uncut American movie, well, you were out of luck. Censors were incredibly strict on imported films and took a knife to anything that glorified the West or made Romania look bad. Priests, love scenes, swimming pools, and flashy cars were all verboten. Even scenes with lots of food ended up on the cutting room floor.

Of course, whenever governments outlaw entertainment, the black market is always ready and willing to provide. In the early ’80s, an underground VHS movement sprung up in Romania. People were so desperate to watch foreign films that they’d sometimes sell their cars and apartments to buy a VCR player, all to see Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone on their TV screens. And the folks who were able to afford VCR players actually turned their homes into secret theaters and sold tickets. However, Romanian cinephiles eventually noticed something odd about their priceless VHS tapes. They were all dubbed by the same female voice.

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It was the same in every movie. The actors would speak, and then a light, off-screen voice would repeat the same line, only in Romanian. Soon, this mysterious voice was known all throughout the country. She had become something of a superstar even though no one knew who was doing the actual talking. Who was the woman dubbing all these American movie stars? Well, this disembodied voice belonged to a woman named Irina Margareta Nistor, and she had inadvertently become a symbol of Romanian rebellion.

Initially, Nistor was a professional translator working for state television. It was her job to translate foreign movies for censorship boards, but on November 5, 1985, she was approached by a station official with an odd proposal. He was looking for someone to translate illegal VHS tapes which he’d then sell on the black market. Nistor jumped at the chance, but not necessarily because she wanted to stick it to the man. While she did enjoy rebelling against the communists, at first she was just interested in watching new movies.

She was eventually set up in a basement, and her work space consisted of a couple VCRs, a TV, and a mic. Usually, she dubbed seven movies a day which included everything from Disney’s The Jungle Book to horror movies to Van Damme action flicks. By the time the government collapsed and Ceausescu was executed, Nistor had translated over 5,000 films and become a living legend. However, the movies she voiced were more than just mere entertainment. According to Nistor, watching these films was “like escaping from jail.” Foreign films were a “window to the West,” and thanks to Nistor’s voice, the Romanian people were able to enjoy a little bit of freedom.

Show Me The Proof

The Economist: Romanian cinema: The pearls of a new generation
NY Times: VHS vs. Communism The Romanian Woman Who Voiced Chuck Norris

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