'I cried throughout, and the whole country cried with me!' - Irina Nistor

Irina Margareta Nistor

Irina Nistor’s voice was the second most well known voice in Romania during the latter years of the rule of the dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu. (Everyone knew what the dictator sounded like; almost everyone knew Irina’s voice.) From 1985, Irina recorded voice-overs for as many as 5,000 pirated videos of Western films, which were copied and distributed throughout the country via the black market. As hers was the only Romanian voice on the recording, millions of her fellow citizens grew up knowing and loving her voice, but having no idea who she was. I met Irina in London, when she was invited to speak about her experiences at the British Library, and the next day we chatted over coffee.

Irina Nistor with the Author, London, October 2019

Anyone who was in any doubt about Irina Nistor’s place in modern Romanian folklore need only to have heard the emotional intervention from a young Romanian woman in the audience at the British Library. Seemingly close to tears of joy, this woman – who was clearly too young to have known Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania – stood up and thanked Irina for being the voice of her childhood, and that of millions of her countrymen. I mentioned to Irina that, like other members of the audience, I was very touched by what the woman said; Irina said that she was, too.

Irina does not see herself as a celebrity. She is simply pleased that thanks to her voice-overs millions of Romanians who lived in the prison camp of the country run by Ceausescu were able to obtain a glimpse of life outside. ‘The first time I ever went abroad I was 32; can you imagine? Travel broadens the mind. It’s something you want to share with your family. But as a girl I was denied that right.’

By the age of 17 Irina understood that she was not going to be able to follow the path which her parents wanted for her of being a doctor. (‘Doctors are amazing,’ she says. ‘There are us human beings down here, and God up there, and doctors are somewhere in between.’) She had a gift for languages. She already spoke French well, a language not too far removed from Romanian, so she decided to take up English. When she finished her studies she got a job at state (there was no other) television. Her love of cinema led to her being tasked with choosing suitable films to be shown on Romanian TV; and her knowledge of French and English meant that she was then asked to write sub-titles.

In 1985, Ceausescu decreed that TV be reduced from two channels to one, and that even that channel would be allowed to broadcast just two hours a day. This, he declared, was because the people were using too much electricity; in reality, it was because his disastrous economic policies and stifling political system were seeing already low living standards fall still further.

This also meant that the TV station had no money to pay for foreign films. ‘We did show some,’ Irina explains. ‘We’d write out a title in Romanian on a piece of paper which we would stick in front of the camera before the film began. This was not the same as the original title, and we hoped that Western film producers wouldn’t notice. One of my colleagues, Tudor Vornicu, who was Head of News, once broadcast an ABBA concert. But there was an official protest from Sweden and he had to pay the copyright fee out of his salary!’

As a BBC journalist, I watched with fascination in 1989 as one after another the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe fell: Mikhail Gorbachev had initiated change in the USSR and made it clear that Soviet troops would not intervene in the satellite states. This helped inspire those calling for reform in those countries. Solidarity triumphed in Poland; Hungary demolished its border fence with Austria and East Germans and Czechoslovaks left in such numbers that East Germany closed its borders; but increasing mass demonstrations culminated in the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November and the overthrow of the regime in Czechoslovakia. There was a true domino effect. But Romania, with arguably the most brutal and rigid regime, seemed to be untouched.

However, in mid-December, riots broke out in the city of Timisoara; and when Ceausescu went to address a crowd in Bucharest on 22 December, he was shouted down. Television pictures show him looking bewildered and waving his hands helplessly. The Romanian revolution had begun; three days later, on Christmas Day, following a kangaroo court, Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, were executed. ‘I remember my boss seeing those pictures of Ceausescu on the balcony waving his hands and him saying, “That’s his end”. I understood then something I had heard through a closed door back in November. Mr Pop, the former Head of Romanian TV, had said to colleagues, “He won’t be alive by Christmas”. I realised now that he meant Ceausescu.’

So while many of us in the West thought that Romania would somehow escape the tide of reform sweeping across Eastern Europe, there were already those plotting against Ceausescu. ‘But it was only Ceausescu they wanted to change,’ Irina explains. ‘On the 31st of December I did a voiceover of the cartoon film of Animal Farm. When he heard what I was doing, Silviu Brucan [who had signed an anti-Ceausescu letter earlier in the year and been arrested by the Securitate – SD] shouted, “Stop her! We’re not against Communism!” But they wouldn’t let him into the studio where I was recording and the programme went ahead.’

Those were frightening times; ‘Don’t let anyone tell you that it wasn’t a revolution, because it was,’ Irina says firmly. ‘We Romanians tend to be a passive lot. It’s difficult to make us react to something. But at that time there was a genuine popular uprising. We call it “mamaliga a explodat” – it’s as if the polenta which was bubbling away on the stove boiled over!’

But life goes on, and Irina continued to make the voice-overs for films. ‘I only ever had one go at it,’ she explains. ‘I would sit and watch a film and immediately make the voice-over. Sometimes I would run off two films without a break.’ Surely, I ask, that was tiring? She denies it. She is passionate about films and often when she went home after a long session she would find it difficult to sleep because she was still excited by the films she had watched.

‘Sometimes I would even become emotional, even crying. In particular, I remember the film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, about a young girl getting an illegal abortion in Ceausescu’s Romania. It won three awards at the Cannes Film Festival [in 2007], including the Palme d’Or. I cried throughout the film as I was translating it, and the whole country cried with me!’

And Irina’s favourite film? ‘Casablanca. I’ve seen it probably 50 times. But not with my translation! The only time I’ve watched a film with my translation was recently when I was interviewed for a programme about the fall of the Berlin Wall and they wanted a shot of me watching one of “my” films. I watched about 20 minutes – but I would happily have watched to the end!’


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