“The way a state functions can crush people sometimes.”
In 2015 a fire broke out in Colectiv, a Bucharest nightclub. Twenty-seven people died because there was only one exit. The corruption that allowed that to happen enraged the populace and led to the fall of the Romanian government. But after four months, thirty-seven other victims died in hospitals because of infections. Collective, from German-Romanian director Alexander Nanau, takes us into the controversy, the investigation, the governmental response to these new deaths, and the reasons behind those deaths.
We learn that while Romanian officials were telling their people that their hospitals were as good as any in Europe, in reality, they were a disaster. The main problem, we discover, is that the disinfectants that were being sold to hospitals were extremely diluted, making them completely ineffective. The company that made the products provided bribes and kickback to administrators and officials. As the investigation is underway, the owner of the company dies under mysterious circumstances.
Nanau has brought us an observational documentary. There are no interviews or voice overs. Rather the camera allows us to be present for a variety of events. It takes us into the newsroom of Sports Gazette (Gazeta Sporturilor) where Cătălin Tolontan leads a group of investigative reporters. We meet a burn victim who models for art photographs. We go to press conferences with the Minister of Health as he tries to defend the corruption being discovered in hospitals and the government. When a new Minister of Health takes over, he allows Nanau access to his meetings as a way of being transparent.
It may seem a bit strange that the investigation seems to be led by a sports journal. Tolontan had experience with investigative stories dealing with the government, mostly with the Ministry of Sports. His expertise was an important part of why the story ended up in that newspaper, which is among the most read in Romania.
One of the key issues involved in the film in many ways is trust. Whom can we trust? The government spokespeople? The reports from labs who test the disinfectants (those labs are accredited by the government)? The doctors who run the hospitals? The press? The filmmaker?
When Vlad Voiculescu becomes the new Minister of Health halfway through the film, he shows a great amount of trust by allowing Nanau to bring his cameras into his offices. Voiculescu, as an outsider, wants to establish transparency so that the people can have a sense of trust. The idea is that trust will beget trust. Voiculescu seeks to bring reforms to the health care system, but he is challenged by some who want to undermine his efforts.
I should note that the film doesn’t end on a hopeful note. As the new election looms in Romania, Voiculescu is faced with the idea that the reforms he was beginning could vanish when the next government takes over. That election, in 2016, reflected the populism that was also taking place in other countries, including the US and the UK. It may make us wonder about where we place our trusts—as individuals, and as a society.
Collective is the winner of several awards from film festivals around the world. It is Romania’s official submission for Best International Film consideration.
Collective is available in theaters and on VOD.
Photos courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.