Nominated for two Oscars, this compelling and confronting Romanian documentary spirals from a tragic fire to corruption in the country's health system.
We can only hope that one day, likely in a far distant future, documentaries will stop doubling as horror films. That time hasn't arrived yet — and as Collective demonstrates, cinema's factual genre can chill viewers to the bone more effectively than most jump- and bump-based fare. Nominated for Best Documentary Feature and Best International Feature at the 2021 Academy Awards (only the second time that's ever happened, after last year's Honeyland), this gripping and gut-wrenching Romanian doco starts with a terrible tragedy. On October 30, 2015, a fire broke out at a metal gig in Bucharest, at a club called Colectiv. Twenty-seven people died in the blaze, and 180 people were injured as they tried to escape via the site's lone exit; however, that's just the beginning of the movie's tale. In the four months afterwards, as burn victims were treated in the country's public hospitals, 37 more passed away. When journalist Cătălin Tolontan and his team at The Sports Gazette started investigating the fire's aftermath and the mounting casualty list, they uncovered not only widespread failures throughout Romania's health system, but also engrained corruption as well. This truly is nightmare fuel; if people can't trust hospitals to act in their patients' best interest after such a sizeable disaster, one of the fundamental tenets of modern society completely collapses.
Early in Collective, director, writer, cinematographer and editor Alexander Nanau (Toto and His Sisters) shows the flames, as seen from inside the club. When the blaze sparks from the show's pyrotechnics, hardcore band Goodbye to Gravity has just finished singing about corruption. "Fuck all your wicked corruption! It's been there since our inception but we couldn't see," the group's singer growls — and no, you can't make this up. It's a difficult moment to watch, but this is a film filled with unflinching sights, and with a viscerally unsettling story that demands attention. Nanau occasionally spends time with the bereaved and angry parents of victims of the fire, even bookending the documentary with one man's distress over the "communication error" that contributed to his son's death. The filmmaker charts a photo shoot with Tedy Ursuleanu, a survivor visibly scarred by her ordeal, too. And yet, taking an observational approach free from narration and interviews, and with only the scantest use of text on-screen, Collective's filmmaker lets much of what's said rustle up the majority of the movie's ghastliest inclusions.
There's plenty for Nanau to cover, and to galvanise viewers in the way that Romanians have been since the Colective blaze. The club's lack of safety measures and the fact that it was permitted to run without fire exits were met by protests, which saw the nation's Prime Minister resign. Tolontan and his team enquired into a different matter, though. Their focus: the deaths after the tragedy, the hygiene standards in hospitals treating victims and exactly how the Romanian health system operates. First, they hear about diluted disinfectants — sold that way by a shady manufacturer, then watered down again onsite — that led to otherwise avoidable bacterial infections and then fatalities in burns patients while they were supposed to be receiving care. On that subject, the Gazette journalists discover bribes, profiteering, the government's awareness and its willingness to let the whole scheme proceed. Then, after a scandal erupts, Collective is given astonishing access to newly appointed Health Minister Vlad Voiculescu as he tackles the situation. A former patients' rights advocate and activist, he's rightly alarmed again and again as he learns how Romania's hospitals work from the inside, and vows to clean up the broken system. But the more he tries, the more corruption he uncovers, and the more resistance he's met with by folks within the bureaucracy who don't want anything to change.
Collective is a dense, painstaking and information-heavy movie, and also a procedural one. Nanau follows the committed Tolontan and his often shocked colleagues as they chase leads, attend press conferences and receive information from whistleblowers. He captures their stakeouts, too, and their thorough conversations about the course and purpose of their investigations. And, when the film broadens its scope in its second half to shadow Voiculescu, it gives him the same treatment. Internal government discussions start to fill the screen, as do the Health Minister's speeches and meetings; when he admits to one group of survivors that "the way a state functions can crush people sometimes," it's an almost perturbingly candid moment. If almost any aspect of this tale was unfurled in a fictional feature, instead of in this tightly framed fly-on-the-wall style documentary, the audience would think that it's too much. A dramatisation is bound to happen, likely as a Spotlight-style Hollywood movie starring a well-known name, but it'll never be able to match the power of seeing and hearing these appalling real-life horrors. One particular shot — not of the fire, but of a patient in the months afterwards — is so potent that it's searing, in fact.
Surprisingly given the strength of the Romanian New Wave, which has given rise to a spate of stellar fictional features — including The Death of Mr Lazarescu and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days on the subject of health care, too — Collective is the country's first to garner any Oscar nods, let alone a couple. Shiny trophies don't make a great movie, of course, but this equally rousing and harrowing documentary is worthy of breaking that ground. A chronicle of cascading scandals, it's also an ode to the type of journalism that truly speaks truth to power and doggedly works to expose the cracks in society's foundations. More than that, it's a testament to the need for public scrutiny over all forms of authority, as well as a portrait of what can happen when the few are left to oversee the many unchecked and with only their own best interests at heart. Every second, and every revelation that comes with it, only adds to Collective's traumatising status. There's hope in this film too, however, because thankfully this confronting documentary and its compelling record of those toiling against entrenched corruption exists.