'Collective' ('Collectiv'): Film Review | Venice 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
An angry, unnerving expression of collective outrage.

A sports newspaper in Romania launches an investigation into hospital corruption in the wake of a nightclub fire in Alexander Nanau's documentary.

The takeaway from most journalistic investigations into government corruption is a feeling of impotent fury at the way politicians and their cronies make millions by slashing their citizens’ quality of life. Collective (Collectiv) by Romanian documaker Alexander Nanau leaves behind something more visceral. Who will forget the mounted photographs, exhibited to the public, of a smiling Goth girl, Tedy Ursuleanu, who refuses to cry over her horribly burned head and body and loss of a hand? Instead, she allows photographers and journalists to use her as a symbol of protest over the government’s crass mistreatment of the tragedy.

Collective is a standout for many reasons. The director’s previous work has also revolved around social issues — Toto and His Sisters is about kids caught in the grip of a poverty-stricken slum in Bucharest, and The World According to Ion B depicts a homeless man whose collages bring him into the art world. But in Collective, Nanau's observational style of filmmaking reaches emotional depths. Tense and tightly edited, this exposé of heartless corruption will ring bells and outrage audiences long after its festival run, which began in Venice and Toronto, is over. It’s also a rousing cheer to sound investigative journalism, in this case the Bucharest paper Sports Gazette and its editor-in-chief Catalin Tolontan.

The story began with a 2015 fire in the nightclub Collectiv, which shocked the country, leaving 27 dead and over 100 injured. Even more unacceptable and heart-breaking were the dozens of survivors who, some recovering from relatively small burns, later died of bacterial infections in inadequately equipped and dangerously unsterile hospitals.

The film kicks off as Tolontan and his staff dive into a full-scale investigation to find out why these patients died, following doctors and nurses around, taking pictures, asking tough questions at press conferences, and talking to businessmen and politicians to uncover the truth. While the photogenic Social Democrat health minister crows about the country’s state-of-the-art hospitals, the truth is brutal, ugly and banal. Even the burn units were unequipped to handle the high number of victims after the nightclub fire.

Yet for days the hospitals proudly refused to sign off on patient transfers to more modern facilities in Vienna. In the end, Tolontan's reporters learn that a shameful traffic in diluted hospital disinfectant is what really killed at least 37 burn patients who could have survived. The evidence points to Dan Condrea, the owner of Hexi Pharma, where the disinfectants were watered down. Condrea is interrogated by police and soon afterwards found dead in a car wreck — presumably a suicide.

The paper’s exposé, backed up by sources like hospital accountants and the brave whistleblower Dr. Camelia Roiu, makes engrossing if uncomfortable viewing. The scandal that follows leads to a government shake-up and the replacement of the Social Democrats with an interim government of experts. A new health minister is appointed, the former patients’ rights advocate Vlad Voiculescu, until the next election. On the wall of his office he hangs a photograph of Tedy Ursuleanu.

Giving Nanau extraordinary access to his closed-door meetings and lively exchanges of opinion with his staff, the independent new minister affords us a glimpse of how very difficult it is to instigate political change. We see him battling political opponents and status-quo bureaucrats within the ministry, giving direct orders they try to duck. Gradually he learns how much collusion there is between hospital administrators and the whole medical establishment — there is rot everywhere, he concludes. His straight-arrow, transparent approach and his abiding disgust over official corruption offer a ray of hope that justice will finally be done and the corrupt administrators kicked out.

Does all end well? The film’s final sequences show the Social Democrats getting organized and launching a counter-attack full of lies on fawning TV stations. Their attacks on Voiculescu turn the truth upside-down. When the election results come in, audiences can draw their own conclusions about how many of the minister’s reforms will survive.

Nanau and his crew shot footage for 14 months, then spent even longer editing it down into this fast-paced shocker that communicates its urgency to the viewer.
Production companies: Alexander Nanau Production, Samsa Film, HBO Europe
Narcis Hogea, Catalin Tolontan, Mirela Neag, Camelia Roiu, Răzvan Lutac, Tedy Ursuleanu, Vlad Voiculescu
Director-director of photography: Alexander Nanau
Screenwriters: Alexander Nanau, Antoaneta Opris
Producers: Alexander Nanau, Bianca Oana, Bernard Michaux, Hanka Kastelicova
Editors: Alexander Nanau, George Cragg, Dana Bunescu
Music: Kyan Bayani
Venue: Venice International Film Festival (Out of competition)
World sales: Cinephil

109 minutes