In an era of fake news, investigative journalists have often pushed for the truth, sounding that alarm against political corruption, cover-ups and bureaucracy. Now, after years of warnings about the misdeeds and corruption of the Romanian government, comes a portrait of journalism in action with Collectiv. The documentary is filmmaker Alexander Nanau’s searing and sickening look at his country’s healthcare system in the wake of the 2015 Colectiv nightclub fire that left 64 dead.
But Collective isn’t about the lack of safety protocols, building regulation or the number of fire exits at the Bucharest nightclub. Twenty-seven people lost their lives on that horrific night, but another 37 burn victims would go on to lose theirs in Romanian hospitals — not due to their burn injuries but from bacterial infections picked up at the hospital.
What followed was an investigation led by Cătălin Tolontan, a journalist at a sports paper who uncovered how the disinfectants used across the country’s national hospital network had been severely and secretly diluted. Shockingly, the diluted disinfectants were just the beginning of a deep-seated web of lies and fraud. With the government practicing Orwellian-levels of “newsspeak” in claims the healthcare system was just as equipped as its European neighbours to handle burn victims, Tolontan’s search uncovered deep levels of gangsterism, corruption, cover-ups, and dishonesty across the government and the pharmaceutical world. Despite threats to their families and resistance from the media at large, the journalists persist as new government officials make way with new avenues of corruption.
Nanau’s saga is deeply unsettling, indeed, especially given his unprecedented and personal access to the key players in the investigation. The news uncovered by Tolontan’s team is disturbing on many levels. There are times where Collective is difficult to watch: video from inside Colectiv as metal band Goodbye to Gravity’s pyrotechnics display goes horribly wrong; the filming of maggots in a festering and poorly-dressed wound of a burn victim as they lie in the hospital.
Here, the filmmaker is a fly on the wall as the journalists get to work bringing the truth to the masses in what is a by-the-books doc from the technical standpoint. Nanau doesn’t hide behind subterfuge or cinematic tricks to tell his story, which admittedly, at times can feel dry as it picks through the political layers and Romanian players. The investigation at the centre of Collective unfolds while the camera rolls, a stark reminder that nothing good comes from a government that puts profit over its people.
But the film does offer a glimmer of hope: when we work as a collective, we can demand justice and that our voices are heard, no matter how small we may be against the institutions in place.
Collective was recently named Best Documentary of 2020 by the Toronto Film Critics Association and has been recognized by several other prominent critics’ circles and film festivals. Expect the film to also compete in the Best Documentary category at the Academy Awards where it is currently being heralded as one of the awards’ frontrunners. It’s also on the shortlist for Best International Feature.
Collective is available on DVD and on digital on Feb. 23.