Alexander Nanau’s jaw-dropping documentary about a healthcare scandal that led to 64 deaths is as gripping as a conspiracy thriller
The subject of corruption seems to dominate the cinema of Romania, from films such as Graduation, about a doctor who reluctantly bribes an official to safeguard his daughter's future, to police procedurals like The Whistlers, which tells a story of a detective on the take, caught in a multi-layered conspiracy. This thematic repetition is no coincidence; in a roundabout way, every Romanian film addressing the nature of corruption is a cry for help.
Collective is an entirely gripping and perhaps even essential documentary that grounds decades of fictional works about the country's rotten state in a tangible, true-life case. Reliant on bribes, favours, and cutting corners, a cultural hangover of the authoritarian Ceaușescu regime, Romanian society is brought to light here in a way that's infuriating and shocking. But in the hands of talented filmmaker Alexander Nanau, you won't be able to look away.
Right off the bat, we're told about the deaths of sixty-four people at a Bucharest nightclub – the titular “Collectiv.” The deaths came in 2015 as a result of botched fire exit protocol and faked permits, and later the hospital workers' use of disinfectant that had been diluted and therefore made useless. In behind-the-scenes footage, we first see the fire itself; later, the surviving patients lying still in grotty hospital beds, skin infested with maggots.
This immersive film captures incredible expose-like scenes and unravels like a real-life Spotlight or Dark Waters as investigate journalists at the Gazeta Sporturilor – led by dedicated editor Cătălin Tolontan – attempt to uncover the truth about a shady company called Hexi Pharma. The deeper they dive, the more they realise how vast the web of lies and corruption has spread throughout not just the health industry, but every facade of Romanian life. Then the death of one of the accused prompts further questions about just how deep the conspiracy goes. Was his death an accident, a suicide… or a murder-cover-up?
Halfway through, Collective shifts its attention from Tolontan and his team to the newly appointed Minister of Health, Vlad Voiculescu, and the film becomes something of a portrait of his attempts to shake up the department – though he is still a little fish in a very large and very stagnant pond. “How the hell can all this be solved?” he asks a doctor who has come to disclose the shady goings-on in hospitals throughout the country. The level of corruption in his department, Vlad discovers, is overwhelming: somewhere in the region of 90%. “Go back to Vienna,” his father tells him, convinced that nothing will ever change. “You can at least help people there.”
As Collective brings more and more institutions and departments into the fold, it almost begins to feel like a Romanian version of HBO's The Wire. We meet the surviving victims, whose lives were changed immeasurably so that somebody else could profit. The victims' families, who find no solace in the government's explanations. Then other people begin to come forward, complicit with crimes and racked with guilt: nurses, doctors, administrative workers. Everyone has blood on their hands in one way or another.
It's one hell of a wake-up call, although – based on the results of the general election at the film's end – it's hard to know just how many Romanians are willing to listen to the truth. Or whether they want to. It's time to stop the culture of bribery and corruption, this film tells us – and investigative journalism has a huge part to play in the future of the country. But as much as Collective shows us there is room and hope for change, it's far easier said than done. This is a good start.
Collective is now available on various streaming services.Where to watch