The meaning behind the title of Alexander Nanau’s documentary Collective is twofold. It’s the name of a Bucharest nightclub where a 2015 fire killed 27 people and injured 180, with deaths in the hospital continuing to pile up in the weeks and months that followed. It also refers to the concept of collective community, and reflects the multifaceted approach Nanau takes to depicting the disaster’s press coverage and government response.
Collective isn’t going to lift up your spirits, but it is a fascinating document of people working hard to uncover the truth and seek justice for an astounding tragedy. Split between a team of journalists at the forefront of reporting on hospital conditions and a newly appointed health minister trying to fix a broken system, Collective plays like a real-life Romanian version of The Wire. It’s compelling, infuriating and inspiring all at the same time.
Nanau’s main focus is a group of journalists at a Bucharest-based sports daily, who uncover a major healthcare scandal. The team’s leader, Catalin Tolontan, and his reporters are approached by whistleblowing hospital employees who inform them that burn victims from the Collective fire are dying not from their burns, but from rampant antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections.
Tolontan and his team quickly discover the cause of the infections: the country’s hospitals use overly diluted disinfectants from a single biotech company that lies on its labels about the strength of the product. Another layer of corruption is uncovered when video surfaces of a neglected burn patient whose festering wounds breed maggots. Meanwhile, the government insists that the burn victims are receiving the best care available, and doctors refuse to sign documents that would allow patients to transfer abroad to better-equipped hospitals.
Nanau finds a hero in Vlad Voiculescu, a former patient rights advocate turned new minister of health. Voiculescu immediately starts enacting reforms that remove corrupt hospital managers and change the hiring process for administrators. He publicly apologizes for the anguish the government has caused victims and their families, and is honest about the state of the country’s healthcare system. Voiculescu’s actions are jeopardized by an looming election, where populist candidates insist that the minister is blocking necessary medical procedures by badmouthing Romania’s healthcare.
Collective feels like the stuff of Hollywood awards bait, not reality, but Nanau strikes an impressive balance between drama and truth. He shows Tolontan and his reporters looking perpetually tired and shocked as they pore over data, get that data checked, interview sources, and talk through their findings. Nobody looks like a movie star, or exudes rakish charm. One man appears to own a total of three shirts. This isn’t romanticized journalism with a swelling soundtrack behind it. It’s the real deal.
Nanau’s depiction of Voiculescu is similarly exhausting and aspirational. His is a job you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy, but he’s exactly the person you want doing it. Voiculescu operates with refreshing sincerity and frankness, exuding genuine care and a non-nonsense attitude that makes you wish he were running the whole country, not just one branch. He’s constantly trampled on and undermined by the more propaganda-savvy people around him, but the way Voiculescu conducts himself is a thrilling example of good public servanthood.
The weight and sadness of Collective’s subject matter, combined with its documentary format, may seem like a next-level hard sell right now. To be sure, hearing medical horror stories and witnessing large-scale governmental corruption lacks a certain appeal when you’re living through something similar. However, Nanau’s character-driven focus and quick pacing result in a real-life political thriller with unimaginably intense stakes, a combination that manages to make it one of the best films of the year. Collective’s depiction of hardworking writers and advocates competently doing their jobs and striving for change is inspiring even in the face of a nation’s pain.
“Collective” is in theaters and on demand Friday.