In 2015, a fire at Bucharest's Colectiv club leaves 27 dead and 180 injured. Soon, more burn victims begin dying in hospitals from wounds that were not life threatening. Then a doctor blows the whistle to a team of investigative journalists. One revelation leads to another as the journalists start to uncover vast health care fraud. When a new health minister is appointed, he offers unprecedented access to his efforts to reform the corrupt system but also to the obstacles he faces. Following journalists, whistle-blowers, burn victims, and government officials, Collective is an uncomprimising look at the impact of investigative journalism at its best.
“We are not human anymore. We only care about money.” This scathing statement, uttered in Alexander Nanau’s documentary Collective (Colectiv), is not just a series of empty words, let alone the expression of a kind of idealism. Indeed, the investigation followed step by step in the film — which was revealed out of competition in Venice, screened in Toronto and awarded in Zurich last year, which travelled to countless festivals since then, EFA nominees and which has just been selected to represent Romania in the Best International Film category at the Oscars — reveals a Romanian healthcare system rotten to the bone. Corruption at every level leaves citizens, who naively believe their hospitals would be able to treat them properly, to die in absurd circumstances, and this in full knowledge of government authorities.
A monstrously edifying analysis which the German director (born in Romania and already well-received with his previous film Toto and His Sisters) shows us with exceptional talent, with a diverse cinematic approach than the ones of conventional TV investigative documentaries. Nanau successfully combines the suspense — worthy of a thriller — of the journalists’ successive discoveries and the attempts of a new minister to fix the system, with sequences dedicated to the victims and survivors that are devoid of pathos but infinitely respectful.
Everything begins with a dramatic and extremely publicised event. On 30 October 2015, a fire breaks out at Colectiv Club, a nightclub in Bucharest without any emergency exits: 27 young people die and 180 are wounded (with nearly 90 of them in critical condition) and the Romanian government promises that they will be treated “as well as they would be in Germany.” But 37 of the severely burnt patients will die in the following weeks because, as a source tells journalists Catalin Tolontan, Mirela Neag and Răzvan Lutac who have decided to investigate the story, “they were kept in an environment that was not sanitised and exposed to one of the most resistant hospital bacteria in Europe (pseudomonas aeruginosa).” Following this information, the trio of the Sports Gazette finds out that the disinfecting products provided to 350 hospitals (2000 operating rooms) by the factory Hexi Pharma are diluted up to ten times the normal dosage once delivered. A practice which conceals corruption at several levels, tax avoidance schemes and secret protection by the State, which had been aware of this procedure for a long time. Despite propaganda, the scandal brings down the Health Minister, who is replaced by Vlad Voiculescu, a former activist for patients’ rights who wants to reform the recruitment process for hospital managers and will face many obstacles. Meanwhile, other revelations bubble to the surface thanks to some brave testimonies shared by the team of the Sports Gazette, and all of this unfolds under the watchful eyes of severe burn victims such as Tedy Ursuleanu, who try to rebuild themselves and get on with their lives.
Secret services, strange car accidents, arrests, protests, strategy meetings for the editorial team or in the minister’s office, hideouts to photograph suspects, negotiations with potential sources, explosive debates on television shows, counter-attacks from the powers in place: Collective (Colectiv) is a thrilling and terrifying documentary, shot and edited with a masterful hand, which demonstrates with ruthless honesty that ending nepotism, politicisation, and conflicts of interest is a difficult, long, sometimes exasperating process that relies on the shoulders of a few pugnacious and clear-headed individuals working for the common good.
Fabien Lemercier, Cineuropa