Collective begins with profoundly upsetting footage filmed by clubbers on their phones of the fire that broke out in 2015 at a crowded Bucharest nightclub, Colectiv. A Romanian band is singing angrily – “Fuck all your wicked corruption. It’s been there since our inception” – before stopping abruptly to ask if anyone has a fire extinguisher. What appeared to be a striking firework display above the heads of the musicians turns out to be a fire, and within seconds flames have engulfed the building and teenagers are running for their lives.
It is a shocking sequence, but it is not the most disturbing element of an extraordinary documentary that reveals a staggering degree of corruption running through Romania’s health system.
The fire left 27 dead and 180 injured, but in the weeks that followed another 37 people died from wounds that should not have been life-threatening, many killed by infections picked up in hospital.
A few days after the fire, the Romanian director Alexander Nanau began following a small team of journalists at Gazeta Sporturilor, a sports newspaper, impressed at the way its reporters, who were more used to writing about football, were asking piercing questions about the state’s response to the fire. Why were there no fire exits in the club? Why were repeated offers of medical help from burns teams in neighbouring EU countries being turned down?
As he began to film them, Nanau could never have predicted the scale of the corruption that would be exposed by these journalists, and perhaps the most compelling sequence in Collective is being in the room as reporters surprise themselves by revealing a stream of scandals so devastating that the deputy editor, Mirela Neag, worries about whether readers will believe them. “It’s so mind-blowing, I’m afraid we will look crazy,” she tells an editorial meeting.
The populist Romanian government had reassured victims’ families about the facilities in Bucharest: “Everything they need is being done for them here.”
This was not true, as investigations by Cătălin Tolontan, Gazeta Sporturilor‘s editor, quickly revealed.
First, his team discovered that a firm called Hexi Pharma had been routinely diluting, tenfold, the required amount of disinfectants in the products used in hundreds of Romanian hospitals; as a result bacteria were found thriving in surgical sterilisation tanks.
Next, they discovered that the intelligence services had been repeatedly warned about the poor quality of hospital disinfectant, but no action had been taken. The paper published images of maggots inside the wounds of burns victims.
Whistleblowers began to send in details of corrupt hospital managers who had built themselves expensive houses with pilfered hospital money, or set up clinics in Switzerland with funds meant for the Romanian health system.
They learned how doctors paid bribes so they could work in emergency surgery, because this was the area where they were themselves likely to receive the most lucrative inducements.
Collective is an observational documentary, but it is as gripping as the best newsroom dramas, from All the Presidents’ Men to Spotlight. There is something thrilling about watching the unglamorous reality of news reporters’ daily existences, as they scrabble around with ballpoint pens and notepads, tapping away on outdated mobile phones, gritting their teeth listening to lying politicians drone on at press conferences, and finally causing havoc simply by asking questions. Ministers resign, hospital managers are taken away in handcuffs, but there is no triumphalism in the newsroom; the journalists complain of headaches and sit on the floor, aghast at the events unfolding around them, before moving calmly to pick away at the next scandal.
As he made Collective, Nanau immersed himself in films from Citizen Kane to Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole. “American cinema has a tradition of portraying journalism, as an important pillar of society, in the formation of democracies,” he says over Zoom from Bucharest, noting that there is not an equivalent tradition in Europe.
As soon as the Colectiv club fire happened, Nanau wanted to make a film about the state’s response.
“They were telling us: ‘Our healthcare system is the best in the world, better than in Germany.’ It was clear that it was just a bunch of thugs, pretending to be politicians and doctors.”
The team at Gazeta Sporturilor were experienced at exposing corruption in the football world, and had already forced two sports ministers to resign. By the time Nanau started filming them, they had already revealed that a burns unit, which TV cameras had shown in a pristine, gleaming state, ready for patients, had never been opened.
Tolontan was initially reluctant to have documentary cameras observing his journalists, worried about the risk to whistleblowers’ anonymity. When Nanau approached him, he wondered whether this was an inspired attempt by the Romanian security services to get a mole into the newsroom. He was reassured by Nanau’s discreet approach; Nanau often filmed accompanied by just one member of crew, creating an intimacy, so that viewers become silent observers inside the newsroom.
“A pretty big part of the press are hand in hand with those in power,” Nanau says.
The rest are struggling financially. So it was left to this group of outsiders at the sports paper to hold the government to account. Soon, people were protesting in the streets and chanting Tolontan’s name. Senior staff at the newspaper received a sinister warning from the intelligence services that they needed to be more careful about their families’ safety.
“But the real heroes of the film were not we journalists – they were the whistleblowers, our sources,” Tolontan says. “It’s our job as journalists to do this work, but the whistleblowers are not obliged by their job description to talk with the press. These were doctors, the accounts people …”
Perhaps for the viewer, the real hero is Vlad Voiculescu, a former patients’ rights activist who is unexpectedly made minister of health after his predecessor is asked to resign. His determination to do the right thing hits obstacle after obstacle. “In any sane society a defective product gets withdrawn. Why can’t we withdraw this product,” he asks a team of bureaucrats, incredulous when he finds out the diluted disinfectants are still in use. During a meeting with one of the survivors of the fire, he tells her:
“The way a dysfunctional state functions can crush people sometimes. You were all crushed by a corrupt healthcare system.”
Even his father tells him the task is hopeless and, during a late-night phone call, urges him to emigrate. “What are you still doing here? This country won’t wake up for 20 or 30 years.” But Voiculescu persists, gradually acquiring a deathly pallor as his optimism seeps away.
This is astonishing and rare access to the inner workings of government, granted only because Voiculescu was not a career politician, and was happy to let cameras observe him wrestling to implement change. By the end of the film, he has lost his job and is uncertain about whether the reforms he has introduced will endure. Certainly, the record of Romania’s health system during the Covid pandemic has not been brilliant. Despite this bleak conclusion, Nanau believes the film’s revelations have had a positive impact on viewers. “The veil has been lifted and civil society has been strengthened, as a result of one courageous whistleblower,” he says.
In the brief period between the film’s release at the start of this year and lockdown, thousands of Romanians queued to see it.
“People cried and were angry,” Tolontan says. Since its release, the number of whistleblowers coming forward with new accounts of corruption has multiplied, he says.
“It shows what storytelling can do,” Nanau adds. “There are so many complex forces controlling our lives, and in a world where we feel that we don’t understand any more how our life is controlled, a story told in the most simple manner gives the people the chance to get a picture about how their life is influenced and how they can contribute to it.”
• Collective is released on digital platforms on 20 November
Source: Amelia Gentleman – The Guardian