“We doctors are no longer human. It’s all about money.”
“Collective” (2019) is one of the best documentaries. Scratch that, it is one of the best movies I have ever seen. In gripping fashion, it attentively follows the efforts of a heroic group of journalists as they expose layer upon layer of fraud and criminal malfeasance in the Romanian national health care system. The way that director Alexander Nanau has built this thrilling expose plays as if you were watching a feature film like “All the President’s Men” or the recent Oscar Best Picture winner “Spotlight.” You may wonder if what you’re seeing it’s actually fiction; its developments are so outrageous and the story unfolds so tautly and quickly-paced. At some point, the editor of the paper exclaims, “It’s so mind-blowing, I’m afraid we will look crazy.”
“Collective” is Romania’s official entry for the Academy Awards and it recently was shortlisted for both the Best International Feature Film of the Oscars for 2021 and the Best Documentary Feature Film – meaning that it could get nominated in those two categories. It has also been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, garnered a slew of awards including Best Documentary at the European Film Awards and named Best Foreign Language Film by the National Society of Film Critics. All these accolades are well-deserved.
On October 30, 2015, a fire during a concert at the Bucharest nightclub Colectiv claimed the lives of 27 people. The officials promised the public the 180 surviving victims would receive care in facilities that were better than those found in Germany. In the coming weeks, another 37 people died from wounds that were not life-threatening. They had been killed from infections that they got at the hospital. Filmmaker Alexander Nanau immediately started filming about the aftermath of this tragedy. At the “Sports Gazette,” a team of investigative reporters, led by Catalin Tolontan, begin to uncover irregularities and how all this propaganda about how the state can treat burn patients might be a big lie. Nanau instinctually begins to follow Tolontan with his camera, gaining his trust and total access. The journalists discover that disinfectant being used at the hospital was being diluted ten times. The surplus of money saved was being pocketed by corrupt politicians.
Nanau befriended a fellow filmmaker and a Colectiv survivor, Mihai Grecea and joined his team right after he woke up from a coma. He was able to connect Nanau with other victims of the fire and their families. We meet Tedy Ursuleanu who is badly burnt, has her lost fingers and her scalp is badly scarred. She’s rebuilding her life and becomes a defiant face of resilience. Nanau documents a photographic session she does for an exhibit of how her body looks now.
There are shocking and astounding revelations that come at you fast and furiously, including a car crash that could have been an accident, a suicide or something nefarious, political briberies, rampant corruption and doctors who have lost any sense of humanity towards their patients. A minister of health resigns amidst all the exposure, and is replaced by a young idealist Vlad Voiculescu who allows Nanau and his camera complete carte blanche for filming. We witness Voiculescu’s reforms being rejected by a populist government.
In a recent conversation I had with Nanau he mentioned that when he started working on this film in early 2016 he never imagined that the year he was covering would be a major turning point for democracy all around the world, starting with Brexit. “I never suspected that, by the end of the production, most of what could be said about Romanian society would be equally relevant for older, more established democracies, be it the UK, the US, Italy, Brazil, Hungary, Poland, Turkey, etc,” he told me. “There was a pattern of populists taking over, lying and attacking the free press, misusing state institutions in their own interest and perverting the very meaning of liberal values and social structures. 2016 tested democracies worldwide, but it also tested each and every one of us.” For Nanau, emotionally, the hardest thing was to be with the parents who were lied to and whose kids lost their lives. They couldn’t save their children. “It’s hard to imagine yourself in their shoes, helpless,” he says.
I point out to Nanau how unique his filmmaking is. We’re used to seeing documentaries where there are interviews, voiceover and IDs and all sorts of prompting. He uses none of that. You start to uncover things the way we do in real life. “My process of documentary filmmaking is a purely observational one,” he tells me. “But what I experience in the process, I am trying to frame in a way that will make the viewers feel as if they were living in close proximity to and discovering the characters. The viewer should feel as if witnessing his or her own process of personal growth through the life of others. That I think is what cinema should do.”
“Collective” is a masterpiece. It is an edge of your seat, real-time detective story with genuinely heroic journalists seeking the truth and accountability.
Available to rent on Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, FandangoNOW, Vudu, iTunes, Redbox, Apple TV, Google Play, YouTube, Microsoft, Showcase Now, Fios TV, xfinity and DIRECTV.
Written by Alexander Nanau and Antoaneta Opris
Directed by Alexander Nanau
Featuring Razvan Lutac, Mirela Neag, Catalin Tolontan, Tedy Ursuleanu and Vlad Voiculescu.
Bringing “Collective” to the Screen
When fire erupted at the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest, Romania in 2015, the blaze killed 26 people on the spot. But the worst, in many respects, was yet to come. One after another, survivors dispatched to hospital burn units began to succumb to infection, driving up the toll over a period of months to 38 more dead. Alexander Nanau’s documentary “Collective”…reveals how investigative reporters helped expose the truth about why so many lives were lost in the fire’s aftermath. “There was one whistleblower, a doctor that had the courage to open up to journalists about the real reasons for the death of the burn victims in Romanian hospitals,” Nanau explains. “From one thing to another, that led to a journalist being able to uncover massive corruption that led up to the highest levels of government.” That one journalist, Cătălin Tolontan, worked for—of all things—a sports newspaper. But he had experience investigating corruption in Romanian soccer clubs, reportage that brought down several government ministers. Plus, reporters at more traditional news outlets had whiffed on the Colectiv story. “The majority of the press failed to uncover the manipulation of the authorities,” the director notes. “[Tolontan] stepped in, in a way, and started to investigate the health care system.” The documentary unfolds with mounting suspense as Tolontan and several colleagues at Sports Gazette get wind of gross misconduct by health care officials and a company that supplied disinfectant to hospitals. The reporters uncover evidence that sanitizer, secretly diluted by the supplier in a money-making scheme, allowed fatal bacteria to flourish in the burn units. Nanau says it wasn’t easy convincing Tolontan and his team to allow him access as their investigation took off. “Because they understood that there’s a lot more to [the scandal],” Nanau recalls, “first they thought maybe I just want to infiltrate their newsroom.” Tolontan became reassured, Nanau says, when he realized the filmmakers, too, were digging into the story. “[Him] seeing that we also got some sources and that we were really gaining a lot of information and that our intention is very serious about it, he gained confidence,” Nanau says.
“He called me one day and said, ‘Okay, we might try to let you film some of our work. Let’s see how much. We are onto something—I can’t tell you what. We don’t know if we are on the right track or if it will be nothing in the end.’” It turned out they were on the right track, and their reporting eventually established that hospital administrators and government overseers had been in on the disinfectant scam, pocketing bribes from the supplier. The revelations caused a public outcry and forced the minister of health to resign. Nanau and his team kept on the story, embedding with a reform-minded advocate for patients, Vlad Voiculescu, who took over as the new health minister. “[Vlad] took this big risk upon him to let himself be filmed,” Nanau comments, “because you put yourself in the hands of a filmmaker that can do anything with the footage, and for that I respect him very much, for having this courage to do this.” Nanau and the health minister negotiated ground rules for filming.“We had this deal that, ‘I’m going to film. You should never tell me in front of all the other people inside the ministry to stop the camera because otherwise they might get inspired that there’s a chance for them to get me out of the ministry,’” Nanau remembers. “We agreed that if people come in [to see him] I would ask them if they wanted to be filmed and if they agreed, it’s fine, and if they don’t agree for sure we respect it.” Meanwhile, Nanau kept filming at Sports Gazette, which continued to break news on the Colectiv scandal with the help of whistleblowers. “We had to respect that the whistleblower [is] the most sacred thing for journalists,” Nanau observes. “So they would tell us, ‘Tonight the whistleblowers will come in. You have five minutes with them. If they agree to be filmed you can stay. If they don’t, please leave.’” The director persuaded a number of those key sources to appear in his documentary. “We were lucky,” Nanau says, “and had basically an understanding with them that, ‘We’re going to film this, but once we edit the film—which can happen in one, two or three years from now, because we don’t know how long this will take—we will watch again the scenes with you and at that moment in time you can decide if you want to disclose your identity in the film.’”…Nanau tells Deadline he’s gratified by the way audiences, in the U.S. and elsewhere, have responded to the film. “It’s for sure a joy the way it connects with so many people…We could feel the same reaction in all different countries,” he observes. “People had the same feeling of having lost the power over their own lives and not being sure if the societies they’re living in are still working in the service of their lives…We can only watch it and in a way be happy that people get inspired by the film and it helps them reflect on their own societies.” (deadline.com)
The Making of “Collective”
…As he began to film them, Nanau could never have predicted the scale of the corruption that would be exposed by these journalists, and perhaps the most compelling sequence in Collective is being in the room as reporters surprise themselves by revealing a stream of scandals so devastating that the deputy editor, Mirela Neag, worries about whether readers will believe them. “It’s so mind-blowing, I’m afraid we will look crazy,” she tells an editorial meeting. The populist Romanian government had reassured victims’ families about the facilities in Bucharest: “Everything they need is being done for them here.” This was not true, as investigations by Cătălin Tolontan, Gazeta Sporturilor‘s editor, quickly revealed. First, his team discovered that a firm called Hexi Pharma had been routinely diluting, tenfold, the required amount of disinfectants in the products used in hundreds of Romanian hospitals; as a result bacteria were found thriving in surgical sterilisation tanks. Next, they discovered that the intelligence services had been repeatedly warned about the poor quality of hospital disinfectant, but no action had been taken. The paper published images of maggots inside the wounds of burns victims. Whistleblowers began to send in details of corrupt hospital managers who had built themselves expensive houses with pilfered hospital money, or set up clinics in Switzerland with funds meant for the Romanian health system. They learned how doctors paid bribes so they could work in emergency surgery, because this was the area where they were themselves likely to receive the most lucrative inducements.
…As he made Collective, Nanau immersed himself in films from Citizen Kane to Billy Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole.” “American cinema has a tradition of portraying journalism, as an important pillar of society, in the formation of democracies,” he says over Zoom from Bucharest, noting that there is not an equivalent tradition in Europe. As soon as the Colectiv club fire happened, Nanau wanted to make a film about the state’s response. “They were telling us: ‘Our healthcare system is the best in the world, better than in Germany.’ It was clear that it was just a bunch of thugs, pretending to be politicians and doctors.” The team at Gazeta Sporturilor were experienced at exposing corruption in the football world, and had already forced two sports ministers to resign. By the time Nanau started filming them, they had already revealed that a burns unit, which TV cameras had shown in a pristine, gleaming state, ready for patients, had never been opened. Tolontan was initially reluctant to have documentary cameras observing his journalists, worried about the risk to whistleblowers’ anonymity. When Nanau approached him, he wondered whether this was an inspired attempt by the Romanian security services to get a mole into the newsroom. He was reassured by Nanau’s discreet approach; Nanau often filmed accompanied by just one member of crew, creating an intimacy, so that viewers become silent observers inside the newsroom. “A pretty big part of the press are hand in hand with those in power,” Nanau says. The rest are struggling financially. So it was left to this group of outsiders at the sports paper to hold the government to account. Soon, people were protesting in the streets and chanting Tolontan’s name. Senior staff at the newspaper received a sinister warning from the intelligence services that they needed to be more careful about their families’ safety…“But the real heroes of the film were not we journalists – they were the whistleblowers, our sources,” Tolontan says. “It’s our job as journalists to do this work, but the whistleblowers are not obliged by their job description to talk with the press. These were doctors, the accounts people …” (theguardian.com)
About Composer Kyan Bayani
Kyan Bayani is a composer and sound artist currently living and working in Berlin and Luxembourg. He has composed music for (a variety of projects including films, dance choreographies, theatre plays and TV series and documentaries. As a sound artist he created multichannel sound installations and sound objects. He graduated from the University of the Arts Berlin where he studied with artists such as Sam Auinger, Robert Henke and Hans Peter Kuhn. Having worked on projects in cities around Europe, Japan and South Korea, the primary focus of his work is the relationship between sound and the different architectural or emotional spaces it can occupy. His compositions are comprised of everyday sounds, field recordings and traditional instruments combined to inhabit the same auditory spaces. (kyanbayani.cc)
About Director and Cinematographer Alexander Nanau
Alexander Nanau was born in Bucharest, Romania in 1979. His family belongs to the Transylvanian Saxons, a cultural minority of German descent who lived since generations in Romania. 1990 they emigrated to Germany and became German citizens. Nanau studied Film Direction at the renowned DFFB in Berlin. His first feature documentary Peter Zadek inszeniert “Peer Gynt” (2006) was released 2006 in Germany and Austria. In 2007 he was a scholarship holder of the Academy of Arts in Berlin. In 2008/2009 he co-produced with HBO Romania, directed and shot the documentary “The World According to Ion B.” (2009) about a 62 years homeless man who starts a career in the international art world with collages he made over the last 30 years. The documentary was selected for over 40 international film festivals and won the prestigious ‘International Emmy Award’ for Arts Programming in 2010. His third feature documentary “Toto and His Sisters” (2014), produced together with HBO Europe, premiered at the San Sebastian Film Festival in the ‘New Directors’ section. The film won major awards at the international film festivals in Angers, Zurich, Warsaw, Jihlava, Leipzig and Sarajevo. It was nominated as ‘Best Documentary’ at the European Film Awards 2015 and won the international Cinema Eye Honors’ Spotlight Award 2016. His latest film “Collective” was premiered out of competition at the 76th Venice Film Festival 2019. It was also screened at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival and in the Spotlight section of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. (dokweb.net)