If you are an avid follower of world news, you might remember a tragic event that occurred in Bucherest, Romania in October 2015 and became an international cause célèbre. A deadly fire broke out in the Colectiv nightclub, killing 27 people and injuring up to 180 others. The club, a converted former factory, was a literal death trap with no fire exits and only one door that was functioning at the time. The other door had to be broken down by panicking clubgoers in order to escape. What happened to at least 37 survivors of the fire was even worse. They died, not from severe burns, but from bacterial infections that could easily have been prevented if the burn centers hadn’t been staffed by inept health care workers, had the appropriate medical equipment to treat the cases and, most importantly, had used a potent disinfectant to prevent the spread of life-threatening bacteria. Alexander Nanau’s documentary Collective takes this tragedy as his starting point but soon uncovers a perfect storm scenario that reveals the terrible truth behind Romania’s health care system and it all adds up to widespread government corruption.
Paced like a detective thriller, Collective introduces a fascinating real-life cast of characters with a small group of investigative reporters emerging as the true heroes. Journalist Catalin Tolontan and staff members Mirela Neag and Razvan Jutac were working at Gazeta Sporturiler (Sport Gazette) when the story broke. Although the publication is primarily a sports newspaper, it has also become a human rights watchdog in the past decade due to its incisive, in-depth reporting. Early in the documentary Tolontan and his team open a can of worms when they focus on Hexi Pharma, the makers of the questionable disinfectant required for use by all Romanian hospitals. It turns out the company was diluting their product, packaging it with false labels regarding the ratio of ingredients and reaping huge financial rewards from something that was no longer effective for fighting bacteria.
Even worse, hospitals, trying to economize, were diluting the disinfectant even more prior to using it. Add this to the fact that many of the burn victims were not receiving daily baths or even proper medical attention (some were covered with white sheets and ignored) and you have a deadly bacteria outbreak that ends up killing patients whose burns were not as serious or life-threatening when first admitted. The horror of it is driven home when Nanau shows a close-up of one of the burn victims and we see maggots moving around the edges of his eyelids.
[Spoiler alert] At one point, Collective threatens to turn into a police procedural drama when the owner of Hexi Pharma (and the prime suspect in the disinfectant scam) is killed in a single car accident. The police report it as suicide but was it actually murder? Public outrage is so great that the current Minister of Health (we see him lying to the media at two news conferences), is replaced with a temporary technocrat who is charged with getting to the bottom of the Hexi scandal and quickly putting it to bed. The boyish-looking Vlad Voiculescu is thrown into the fray but his own investigations into the case put him at odds with his government employers when he discovers a disturbing pattern of bribery, fraud and pay for play career appointments throughout Romania’s health care system.
There are amazing revelations throughout Collective and one of the best is a hospital administrator who looks like a gangland thug out of The Sopranos TV series. Verbally abusive to his staff and combative with medical professionals, he is revealed to have no medical background and bribed a government official for his position. He also had been siphoning money from the hospital’s operating budget and funneling it into his own account, which allowed him to build a luxury townhouse for himself among other amenities. He is just one of the many shady characters that thrive under the Social Democratic party which wields all the power in Romania.
In another potent scene that underlines the need for transparency between a government and its citizens, we see Tolontan on a conservative television talk show where he is accused by the host of being an alarmist and fear-monger. In his own defense, he explains that his end goal was to find the truth: “It’s my profession, however disturbing…our silence during the first days after the fire allowed the authorities to lie to us. All I’m trying is to give people after this discussion tonight more knowledge about the powers that shape our lives.”
In the course of the documentary, Voiculescu comes to the same conclusion which is that Romania’s health care system had become politicized and exploited for profit. In his closing remarks, he states “Hospital managers can no longer hold leading or administrative positions in any political party. We don’t want hospitals to be managed by political interests. We’ve had enough of that during the past 25 years. And as we all know our political leaders always choose hospitals abroad for their own treatments.”
Collective is a sobering cautionary tale and makes the viewer wonder if a similar scenario could occur here. The fact that the Covid epidemic has been politicized by certain groups is a clear indication that the U.S. could indeed be moving in a polarized direction not unlike Romania.
Nanau, who spent 14 months filming Collective and then another 18 months editing it, had this to say about his documentary in the official press kit. “When I started working on this film in early 2016, I never imagined that the year would be a major turning point for democracy all around the world. 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. 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.”
An emotionally engaging and absorbing look at another culture’s dilemmas, Collective may very likely end up an Oscar contender for Best Documentary or even Best Foreign Language Feature. It is certainly going on my top ten documentaries of 2020 list which includes James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham’s Crip Camp about the Disability Rights Movement, Dick Johnson is Dead, Kirsten Johnson’s tragicomic portrait of her dying father and My Octopus Teacher, Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed’s fascinating nature study filmed in the waters of Storm Cape, South Africa.
Collective is being distributed by Magnolia Pictures and is slated for a November 20, 2020 release at selected theaters and streaming platforms.
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