Early in Alexander Nanau’s riveting documentary “Collective,” the film shows 2015 footage from a nightclub punk rock concert. The pounding chords of a song by the band onstage dies away to the cheers of the audience members. As if in celebration of the great performance just concluded, a set of sparklers goes off near the ceiling. The sight puzzles the band’s lead singer, as sparklers are not part of the entertainment. Within seconds, it’s clear the “sparklers” are signs of an electrical wiring short…which quickly turns into a rapidly spreading ceiling fire. Panicked club attendees race for the exits and the resulting bedlam is captured for a few seconds before the film image goes to an agonizingly long black screen.
Yet Nanau does not start his film with that footage. Instead, “Collective” begins with background facts on the resulting fire and its horrific aftermath. The disaster at the popular Bucharest nightclub Collective results in the immediate deaths of 27 young people and the injuries of 180 others. Contributing to the high injury toll is the club’s lacking fire doors, which led to fleeing clubgoers getting trampled. Popular furor over the tragedy leads to the mass resignation of Romania’s existing Social Democratic rulers. (It’s not stated in the film, but the implication is that government corruption allowed Collective to open without meeting building safety requirements.) Yet 37 more fire victims wind up dying in hospital in the following months from causes unrelated to the fire.
The causes of those deaths turn out to be a combination of bacterial infections received in Romania’s sole burn treatment hospital and delays or rejections of transfers to better-equipped burn treatment hospitals outside Romania. Nanau’s juxtaposing the aforementioned footage of the Collective fire to a press conference sequence silently equates the corruption of the Romanian health care system with the corruption that led to the Collective clubgoers’ deaths.
The first of “Collective”’s central subjects, journalist Catalin Tolontan, is introduced via self-identification at a press conference on the hospital deaths. Nanau’s unobtrusive introduction of this middle-aged working journalist avoids painting him as an instant Fourth Estate savior. Instead, Tolontan’s “just doing my job” attitude hides the proverbial bulldog’s persistence in unraveling the web of rot and corruption that led to those deaths.
Nanau’s following of the investigation by Tolontan’s team will fascinate and horrify the viewer with its revelations about the cause of those burn victims’ fatal infections. If the Collective victims’ bodies contained pyocyanic bacteria and worse, that’s because the disinfectants hospital staff used were too weak to kill all the germs. Lab tests reveal that the germicides contained only a tenth of the active ingredients claimed on their container labels. Yet Hexi Pharma, the manufacturer of these diluted germ-killers, had lucrative government contracts to supply 350 hospitals around the country with them. Despite public pressure brought on by newspaper articles written by Tolontan and his fellow reporters, the Romanian health minister insists these highly diluted chemicals were allegedly 95% effective in killing germs.
Seeing the patient and methodical efforts made by Tolontan’s team to figure out why Collective burn victims are continuing to die will remind viewers why good journalism matters. Without the discoveries made by the Sports Gazette reporters, the deaths might very well have been attributed to really tough bacteria. (In a way, America’s current lame duck president aka the Mouth Breather-In-Chief is right to call the press the enemy of the people. But the people the Orange Skull wants to protect happen to be those happy to abuse their power for personal gain or to hurt others.)
Tolontan’s team soon discovers the problems in the country’s hospital system go beyond Hexi Pharma owner Dan Cordera’s using his offshore company Hatom Ltd. to milk his government contracts as if they were plump cow udders, Over a ten-year period, the Romanian government had been repeatedly informed by an expert of the dangers of Hexi Pharma’s products…yet it did nothing. A doctor who works in the burn hospital tells of mistreatment of recovering burn patients and brings covertly shot footage as proof. The doctor’s graphic footage will churn the stomachs of those with more delicate sensibilities.
Nanau’s film subtly points out that just because Tolontan and his team write for the sports journalism outlet “Sports Gazette,” their work shouldn’t be dismissed. The disjunction is admittedly similar to imagining “Sports Illustrated” doing “Mother Jones”-style muckraking. But as Tolontan points out in a TV interview, who he writes for matters less than his relationship to authority figures. The reporter describes the relationship he’s trying to avoid as follows: “When the press bows down to the authorities, the authorities will mistreat the citizens.” Without naming names, Tolontan’s statement subtly condemns more “respectable” news outlets content to be stenographers for Romanian officials. Take that, “access journalism!”
Tolontan’s distrust of authority figures also explains his less-than-impressed attitude towards “Collective”’s second subject, Vlad Voiculescu. (The unexcited reporter refers to him as “I am Vlad.”) Voiculescu is a former patient’s rights advocate who becomes the new Health Minister via circumstances that will not be revealed here.
Nanau’s introduction of Voiculescu into the film opens up the dynamics of “Collective” in a big and important way. The efforts of the Sports Gazette reporters essentially amounts to being from the outside looking into the dirty workings of the Romanian government health system. Following the efforts of the new Health Minister to reform the country’s health system from the inside reveals the entrenched interests that make such reform difficult. For example, ordering the removal of the essentially ineffective Hexi Pharma germicides from the country’s hospitals can’t be done thanks to rules that prevent such removals.
Voiculescu, to his credit, is indeed sincere about reforming Romania’s health services. To prevent future deaths in Romania’s only burn treatment hospital, he reduces the old patient packing system. Collective fire burn victims or their survivors receive his public admission that the fatal transfer delays that led to some burn victims’ deaths resulted from hospital administrators’ cold-blooded stinginess.
However, Voiculescu’s reformation desires clash with his cautiousness. Stopping the mistreatment of burn victims by punishing obviously negligent hospital staff is something the Minister doesn’t have the stomach for. Such punishment would result in Romania lacking any facility for treating burn victims.
Predictably, Voiculescu’s caution winds up making him ineffective in mastering the politics needed to bring about the reforms he wants. His reform bill for the country’s health system gets repeatedly blocked. Via pliable media outlets, a Social Democratic mayor publicly insinuates Voiculescu will personally benefit from not having ill Romanians treated domestically. The Health Minister’s plans for new and better contracts for the country’s hospital managers fails to account for how coveted these positions are (for their embezzlement opportunities) by the politically well-connected.
The other disheartening truth captured in “Collective” is that moral outrage goes only so far in reforming a corrupt system. The scoops of Tolontan’s team could not have been possible without the help of people horrified that, for example, the deliberate dilution of germicides would lead to hospital patients dying. But when it comes to taking down more highly placed corrupt figures, moral outrage is nonexistent. The accountants who provide evidence of Professor Secureanu’s embezzlement of Malaxa hospital funds apparently do so in retaliation for his continual abusive behavior towards them. The head of the country’s Transplant Agency won’t revoke the agency’s certification of an obviously unqualified but politically connected doctor. He cares more about keeping his agency’s reputation clean than saving lives.
A few years ago, Cristian Mungiu’s powerful “Graduation” dramatized social and political corruption in modern day Romania in microcosm. Nanau’s film shows that in real life, such corruption is chillingly far more pervasive and entrenched than what Mungiu depicted.
Criticizing Nanau for not personalizing Tolontan and Voiculescu more misses the point of “Collective.” Making both men heroes in the film ignores the truth that reforming a country as corrupt as Romania cannot be either the burden or responsibility of just one or two determined men. It must be a job undertaken by the collective will of the Romanian people. Whether that will to end Romanian corruption culture truly exists is a different story.
(“Collective” will be available in theaters and On Demand starting November 20, 2020.)Filed under: Arts & Entertainment