THE STORY – Journalists uncover health care fraud in the wake of a deadly nightclub fire in Bucharest, Romania, in 2015.
THE CAST – Razvan Lutac, Mirela Neag & Catalin Tolontan
THE TEAM – Alexander Nanau (Director/Writer) & Antoaneta Opriș (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 109 Minutes
By Dan Bayer
A massive wall of text sets the scene: A fire at a concert at the Collectiv club in Bucharest, Romania instantly killed 27 young people and injured 180 more. People protested the corrupt authorities who allowed the club to operate without fire exits, enough so that the Social Democratic government was forced to resign, leaving a politically independent government of technocrats in charge with a one-year mandate until the next general elections. But then, in the four months following the Collectiv fire, 37 more burn victims die of injuries that were supposedly not fatal. Which leads us to the main plot of Alexander Nanau’s searing vérité-style documentary “Collective.” That title refers not only to the club where the fire took place, and not only to the group of people who forced the government’s hand but to the group of journalists working their butts off to get to the bottom of those deaths, as well as the network of individuals who make up the corrupt government that failed spectacularly and then lied about it even in the face of continually mounting evidence.
Sound like anything else that may be happening in the world recently? The timeliness of “Collective” has only grown throughout 2020, in ways that nobody could have possibly guessed when the film was made. It is incredible and horrifying to watch right from the first spoken line of the film: “Our health system is rotten,” said at a grief group meeting in which parents say things like “a communication error killed my son.” From there we go to a press conference where a spokesperson lays out the story – hospitals that were not equipped to handle burn victims were forced to, even though the space wasn’t safe for them. Only then do we see footage from the Collectiv fire, from the phone camera of one of the attendees, and it is truly horrifying.
But the story the parents have been told isn’t the whole story, and Catalin Tolontan, who works for a sports journal, is investigating the truth with his colleagues. They get a smoking gun early on which proves that not only did a chemical company sell diluted disinfectants to hospitals, but that the hospital then diluted them further. The film follows two other story threads in addition to that of Tolontan and his team. We also follow one of the survivors of the fire as she poses for art photographs and gets fitted for a robotic hand, and Vlad Voiculescu, who is brought in by the government to serve as the new Minister of Health.
Each of these storylines covers a vital part of the story as it spirals outward from the fire itself, but they aren’t each afforded the same weight. The survivor’s story receives by far the least amount of time, as it doesn’t overlap with the other story threads at all. The filmmakers try to make up for this by opening and closing the film on the survivors and the families of those who died as a result of the fire, but the lack of attention elsewhere robs the ending of some of its power, as does the abrupt nature of the ending itself. But the storylines following Tolontan and Voiculsecu are riveting, putting us right in the middle of the investigation and the political attempt to make necessary life-saving changes. Listening to Tolontan as he says he holds himself responsible in part, as he allowed himself to be lied to by the authorities for so many years is heartbreaking. It is just as heartbreaking to watch Voiculescu, a former patients’ rights advocate, try as hard as he can to untangle the corrupt Gordian knot of the government’s health ministry, only to be continually screwed over by just how bad everything is.
The twists and turns “Collective” takes are horrifying on multiple levels. Watching them in the middle of a pandemic that has been so consistently mismanaged by government officials in the US is even more horrifying. But “Collective” still feels a bit unbalanced overall. The three storylines are never tied together as well as they could be, even though each is effective on its own, and the ending, while powerful, is also incredibly abrupt, leaving you with the feeling that there has to be more to this story somehow. Of course, there absolutely is, but the way this world works ensures that we likely won’t know it for years yet. In the end, that may be the most powerful message the film has: We can demand better of our leaders, and work from both outside and inside the system to make it better, but some problems have been so bad for so long that they may never be fixed.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – An incredible true story that captures the current state of the entire world through one incident in one country with remarkable empathy and clear-sightedness.
THE BAD – Doesn’t quite thread its three-story strands together in a satisfying way, which isn’t helped by a very abrupt ending.
THE OSCARS – Best International Feature Film & Best Documentary Feature (Nominated)