2020, NR, 109 min. Directed by Alexander Nanau.
REVIEWED By Josh Kupecki, Fri., Nov. 20, 2020
Insidious political corruption may be ubiquitous in modern society, but it has been around since the earliest civilizations. Ancient Egyptians had to customarily grease the wheels, and everyone’s favorite Babylonian, Hammurabi, included a few choice codes on the subject. But it really wasn’t until the Sixties brought about the idea of questioning authority that these sinister forces at play were brought to light. Ever since Woodward and Bernstein exposed corruption in the highest levels of the U.S. government, journalists have increasingly uncovered abuses of trust, greed, and the exploitation of the weak. Which brings us to Romanian filmmaker Alexander Nanau’s latest documentary, Collective, which reveals a jaw-dropping investigation into the deplorable malfeasance of health care in his native country. If you overlaid the plot of every post-Watergate conspiracy film together, you would still be miles away from the systemic corrosion unveiled here.
The first domino to fall is a 2015 fire that broke out in a Bucharest club named Colectiv, killing 64 people and injuring over a hundred. Initially, protests revolved around the club not having the proper safety permits, but as time went on, something else started happening. An inordinate number of the wounded patients were dying in the hospitals, even as the media were told that the government was “managing the situation impeccably.” One newspaper, Sports Gazette (yes, a sports daily) began to look deeper into the cause of these deaths. Editor Catalin Tolontan and his team of journalists discovered that the disinfectants used by the hospitals had been diluted at least 10 times more than normal, exposing the patients to some of the most drug-resistant pyogenic bacteria in Europe. The head of the company supplying these biocides had exclusive contracts with all the hospitals, was funneling money offshore, and during the investigation, conveniently died in a violent car crash before he could testify. The Minister of Health resigns, replaced by a reformer, Vlad Voiculescu, who promises transparency. In one of his first meetings with his cabinet, he actually says, “The first thing we need to do to gain trust is stop lying.”
Tolontan and co. keep digging deeper, uncovering more and more corruption, as they follow the money trails, and whistleblowers begin to reach out to them, burdened by guilt from what they’ve seen. And it is horrific. More than 12,000 completely avoidable deaths a year, maggots festering on burn victims, inaccurate blood transfusions, hospital managers having fake invoices paid out, untold millions of euros siphoned out of the health care system to line the pockets of politicians, bureaucrats, and mobsters. Just when you think they have surely reached the end, the path keeps branching outward and upward. It is corruption entrenched in a system so rotten, it takes your breath away. At one point, Voiculescu admits to a group of reporters that in the current state of the hospitals, five burn victims would be four too many, overtaxing the system.
What makes Nanau’s film utterly compelling is the unfettered access he had to both the Sports Gazette journalists and to Minister of Health Voiculescu. There are no interviews or talking heads here: Everything unfolds as it is happening. From the reporters nonchalantly dropping their cellphones on the floor before entering a meeting room, to Voiculescu stammering his way through making amends to the Colectiv club survivors. Collective is a riveting examination of the systemized graft of the urban political machine. At one point, appearing on a TV program, Tolontan is asked what his goal is in exposing all these horrors, the subtext being that he is just causing people more misery. His response is the essence of the film’s theme: “There is no final goal in [journalism]. All I’m trying is to give people more knowledge about the powers that shape our lives.”
Collective is available now as a Virtual Cinema release.