During the 1980s, Irina Margareta Nistor was possibly the most famous woman in Romania. People crowded around their TVs night after night to listen to her, and speculated about her mysterious inner life like she was a Hollywood star, splashed across the pages of Us Weekly. But no one had ever seen her face.
That’s because Nistor was known only by her voice. From 1985 through the collapse of the Romanian communist regime, she translated thousands of bootlegged films from the West, talking over the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Tom Cruise. Her dubs could have landed her in a lot of trouble with Nicolae Ceaușescu’s government—which Nistor knew all too well, as she spent her mornings working for the highly censored national television service. But she managed to keep doing the clandestine work and, in the process, became the most famous voice in the country (well, apart from Ceaușescu’s).
Nistor began working for Romanian national television in 1983, three years after earning a degree in foreign languages. It wasn’t a great job. Ceaușescu had cut programming down to just one channel, which aired only a few hours of propaganda or severely edited films a day. People were hungry for something—anything—besides another speech extolling the virtues of communism, and VHS tapes became their salvation.
As filmmaker Ilinca Calugareanu detailed in Chuck Norris vs. Communism (a fantastically-named documentary released last year), the lucky few citizens with VCRs started acquiring smuggled Western movies through a network run by secretive businessman named Teodor Zamfir.
A colleague at the television station introduced Nistor to Zamfir in November of 1985, after hooking her on the promise of seeing new, unaltered movies. Zamfir offered her translation work if she could complete a dubbing test with a VHS copy of Doctor Zhivago. Nistor had already seen that one, so she aced the exam and got hired as Zamfir’s literal partner in crime.
Nistor kept crazy hours. From 8:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m., she slogged through her work at the national television station. Once she was off the clock, she walked a few blocks to Zamfir’s apartment, where she would speed through six to eight movies in a row, often wrapping around midnight. It was just her, two VCRs, a TV set, and a microphone in a basement—unless she was dubbing cartoons. Zamfir’s two kids would join her for those, sitting on her lap as she rapidly translated into the microphone.
The movies Nistor dubbed ran the gamut from excessive ‘80s action movies (Bloodsport, Rambo) to erotic dramas (Last Tango in Paris, 9½ Weeks), to horror classics (Alien, The Shining). Some of the films might have been low on substance, but the Romanians watching them cherished these movies because they were so deprived of information. Chuck Norris movies gave them a glimpse of the world outside Romania, even if it was an explosion-filled world with cheesy dialogue and unfortunate haircuts.
Nistor had a number of close calls during her years of illicit work. In Chuck Norris vs. Communism, she recalled a scary, repeated encounter she had with a secret police agent at the national television station. They often ended up riding the elevator together and each time he muttered, “I heard you last night,” before exiting. She was also once explicitly reprimanded by a superior for dubbing a religious film, Jesus of Nazereth. She and Zamfir both suspected each other of being secret police double agents during their partnership, but it was a new associate that almost undid them.
Zamfir eventually hired a second translator, Mircea Cojocaru, to pick up hours when Nistor was unavailable. His output was nothing compared to Nistor’s; Romanians who watched these movies in the ‘80s either barely remember his voice or openly loathe it, and that was probably because he was an undercover agent for the secret police. Zamfir discovered this when Cojocaru intervened during a raid of the apartment, which he did at great personal risk. Luckily, Zamfir saved both their necks by bribing top government officials … with free tapes. Yes, even the top brass were secretly into Hollywood flicks, which helps explain why their operation was never busted. (Allegedly, even Ceaușescu’s son asked Zamfir for movies.)
The whole time, Nistor was kept relatively in the dark about where the movies were going and who was watching them, so she couldn’t appreciate the phenomenon she was helping to kickstart. Zamfir’s associates were distributing the films to towns and cities all over Romania, and those who had the tapes and the means to watch them would frequently host video nights, where 10 to 20 neighbors would pack into apartments and watch smuggled films into the early morning hours. Little boys started mimicking Rocky Balboa’s morning routine while little girls dreamed of copying Jennifer Grey’s dress from Dirty Dancing and, most importantly, dissidents began drawing connections between the goons Van Damme punched and members of their own government.
It would be ludicrous to chalk the bloody uprising that came along in December 1989 up to a few particularly passionate Missing in Action fans, but the movies confirmed there was a better way out there, and, eventually, the people of Romania got tired of waiting for it.
Today, Nistor no longer lives in the shadows. She’s a well known film critic based in Bucharest, where she started a film festival in 2012. Romanians have definitely seen her face, but for many who harbor cherished memories of secret movie marathons, she’s not quite a real person. She’s ethereal, a disembodied beacon of hope—whose voice just happened to tumble out of John Rambo’s mouth.