In 2015, a fire at a Bucharest nightclub killed 26 people. The fire was started by pyrotechnics, but many lives would have been spared if the venue had been up to code and had any fire exits. Soon after the fire, the owners of the club were arrested and charged with negligent homicide, but that’s just the beginning of the story. 38 of the surviving victims, all of whom suffered severe burns, subsequently died in hospitals. The investigation that followed, chronicled in Alexander Nanau’s urgent documentary, “Collective,” would shake an entire nation’s faith in their government.
“Collective” is a true story of decent people trying to take responsibility for a messed-up world. Some emerge from unlikely spots, like the journalists at Sports Weekly, a tabloid newspaper in Bucharest. After breaking the story that the disinfectant used in all Romanian hospitals was systematically diluted for corporate profit, lead reporter Catalin Tolontan pursues the truth from government officials, company men, and state doctors, all of whom try to cover their butts. Tolonton and his colleagues are resolute, and the film shares their spirit. Watching them break the case, ask tough follow-up questions, and defend the truth in the face of overwhelming obfuscation might make you want to stand up and cheer in your living room.
And yet “Collective” is also a heartbreaking depiction of how the truth can be suppressed. After the story breaks, the Secretary of Health seeks to reassure the public by running a test of the disinfectants. The results seem fishy, and the journalists rightly question the objectivity of the government-funded testers. Later, Tolontan is invited onto a talk show for a debate, where he is accused by a government stooge of stoking fears in the healthcare system that could ultimately cost lives. It’s the kind of insidious reframing of the debate that occurs daily in our own political media. At the very least, it’s a good reminder that our problems are not ours alone.
The corruption on display is so deep that it seems to run through every corner of Romanian society, but a crack in the dam soon leads to a flood of truth. Whistleblowers turn up from hospitals and the government, and are eager to unburden themselves to the journalists. Eventually the film’s perspective shifts to that of Vlad Voiculescu, a baby-faced patients rights’ advocate who is appointed the new Secretary of Health after the last one was forced to resign. He’s a perfect audience proxy; an empathetic individual who has found himself in a position of power. Watching him refuse to believe the lies that have stood for so long is downright cathartic, and he emerges as the film’s down-to-earth hero, the kind we hope we could be if we had the nerve and the opportunity.
Nanau keeps his lens close on Romania, never scaling back to see how the tragedy is portrayed by the global media. It’s not necessary. You don’t have to squint too hard to make the comparison to, say, a more local government that has been corrupted by money and has left innocent citizens dead from a healthcare crisis, but the story onscreen is so compelling that the corollary never detracts from it. Government corruption and human suffering are too universal to be considered for allegory, but the film’s themes will surely resonate deeply with Americans frustrated with their government’s inability to protect them during this pandemic.
Chronicling corruption is a worthy endeavor, but “Collective” digs deep enough to see the profoundly human failure at its core. After hearing from one doctor about the cascading system of bribes, from patients to doctors to hospital managers, the Secretary of Health shakes his head and asks simply: “How did we let this happen?” She replies, “We lost our humanity.” This intrepid work shows a society that has lost its soul, and documents the first, brave steps towards getting it back.
“Collective” is now streaming through the Jacob Burns Film Center at burnsfilmcenter.org.