By Elias Savada.
Horrific footage of the inferno casts an eerie light as Nanau’s film begins, and, with a surgeon’s precision, he peels away the scab hiding an immoral national health-care system at home, one that had been secretly festering for a decade.”
It took a Romanian sports journalist to uncover a boiling cauldron of political corruption in his backyard, and observationalist documentarian Alexander Nanau to spread the bad news to the world. The German-Romanian filmmaker, whose last feature, the 2015 documentary Toto and His Sisters, won over a dozen festival awards, has embedded himself and his crew again in Colectiv (Collective), and has likewise garnered nearly a dozen festival trophies in advance of the film’s arrival in U.S. theaters and on-demand venues on November 20th. Locally here in Washington DC, it unspooled virtually at the Double Exposure Film Festival and Symposium. It’s Romania’s official submission (and a powerful entry) for the Best International Feature Film at the 93rd Academy Awards.
The film’s title refers to the Bucharest nightclub where 27 people died on October 30, 2015, after a fire erupted during a free concert. Another 38 of the injured who had suffered burn damage died in poorly-run state-administered hospitals. Sadly, that double tragedy was only the beginning of a series of high-profile problems that brought the government to its knees.
Horrific footage of the inferno casts an eerie light as Nanau’s film begins, and, with a surgeon’s precision, he peels away the scab hiding an immoral national health-care system at home, one that had been secretly festering for a decade. Despite assurances the incapacitated survivors were receiving the best possible care — “all medical needs are being met” is what government authorities assured family and friends of the victims — it was a lie. A brazen one.
In this part of Eastern Europe, “best medical care” was an oxymoron as Nanau followed Cătălin Tolontan, the journalist and editor-in-chief of Gazeta Sportutilor, on a revelatory journey. The reporter had previously spearheaded stories unearthing corruption in Romania’s sports industry. Now his team, with fellow editors Mirela Neag and Răzvan Luţac, had become suspicious in the weeks after the fire, as too many hospital patients with wounds deemed not life-threatening began dying from contaminations. The culprit wasn’t so much the remediable bacterial infections, but intensely diluted disinfectants used to treat them, all supplied by the Hexi Pharma company, the first bad egg in the many that follow in the film. The news team’s photographer trains his telephoto lens on the key suspect: Dan “no comment” Condrea, the big pharma company’s shady owner. That undercover pathway is literally killed off just as the chase begins — a development that just spurs the group to sniff out other ledes in a quickly escalating story.
Next up (and then quickly down) is Patriciu Achimas-Cadariu, the country’s minister of health, after having spilled out misinformation about the effectiveness of the sanitizer. Sidesteps ensue. The press greets the new health minister, Vlad Voiculescu, a former patients’ rights activist, cautiously. Another government pawn, perhaps, one who might sweep everything under the rug? Or suck the blood out of the news inquiry. After all, most of us know Vlad the Impaler as Dracula, the world-renowned horror figure.
Instead, some daylight and openness casts its spell. During the film’s second half, the minister allows the film’s crew to observe him in his inner sanctum, during high pitched meetings and angry phone calls. Nanau trains his camera on him and barely lets up, although Tolontan’s examination does get some key minutes interspersed with the apologetic minister. The media follows with abandon the newsman’s exposés, and the Bucharest mayor stirs the pot, trying to appoint a political ally to run the crooked hospital system.
As the movie progresses, you marvel at how it captures, like a fly-on-the wall, investigative journalism at its finest. These reporters take apart the pharmaceutical company, at least one abusive hospital administrator, and a few politicians involved in the sweeping conspiracy, bit by fact-finding bit. Sadly, the Romanian people gave the same corrupt officials a vote of approval in the subsequent election.
While Collective takes aim at the carelessness, selfishness, and greediness in the far-reaching scandal, there are dashes of hope for the wounded fighting for their actual lives, particularly an extended sidebar documenting the recovery of Tedy Ursuleanu, a severely burned architect, during her rehabilitation. A gentle yet determined soul, her small steps become stronger as she becomes the focus of a visual artist – his photograph exhibit of her screaming from barren concrete walls – while the subject is trying to heal herself, and others. A brave, compassionate woman, holding no grudge, “I have no choice, the only way is forward, and up.”
The exploration within Collective showcases muckraking done right. Knowing your facts and putting the opposition on the offensive. In this chronological examination of political malfeasance, the Davids are shown fighting a desperate battle against the government Goliaths. Armed with that honesty, and framing the film without special effects, flashy graphics, and music to detract, what’s there gives you just straight-forward let-the camera-tell-it-all reporting.
And that’s worth cheering about, even if there is still something rotten in Romania.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).