Watching the chaos and upheaval of one’s own country can make it easy to forget that political corruption and the denigration of journalism are universal problems. Alexander Nanau‘s documentary, Collective, shines a light on a specific crisis in Romania, while reminding viewers around the world of the importance and power of the free press.
On October 30, 2015, Goodbye to Gravity was in the middle of a concert at the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest when a fire broke out. Improperly equipped and with too few emergency exits, the crowd was trapped. In all, 64 people died — including four members of the band — and nearly 150 others were hospitalized with injuries. Of those who died, 26 were killed at the club while 38 others died later in hospitals. When it was revealed that 13 of the patients sent to Romanian hospitals died from bacterial infections, reporters started asking questions, protests erupted, and the government was pressured to resign.
Collective first introduces the tragedy through the eyes of family members and survivors as they work through the trauma, search for answers, and try to move forward. From there we meet Catalin Tolontan and his team at the Gazeta Sporturilor, the journalists who were instrumental in proving that this was much more than an unfortunate case of incompetence.
Nanau invites the viewer into the room to witness the investigation. He doesn’t rely on interviews, narration, or title cards (apart from the opening and closing scenes). This creates in the audience a sense of being part of the unfolding story, letting us experience shock, dismay and horror right along with Tolontan and his team. The one bit of context that might have been helpful would have been an explanation about why a group of sports writers were the ones to break a story uncovering layer upon layer of corruption within the healthcare industry.
If this was simply a story about the investigative reporters and their search for the truth, it would have been fascinating and disturbing enough. But Nanau further expands this story by taking us into the offices of Vlad Voiculescu, who became the Minister of Health several months after Dacian Cioloș was appointed as Prime Minister in the aftermath of the Collective Fire. Voiculescu is young and his background as a patients’ rights advocate is easy to overlook at first when he comes across as a bit awkward, particularly when he habitually chuckles at things that are not funny. But what becomes clear very quickly is that he is a fierce advocate for real, lasting reforms. Voiculescu becomes the rare gift of a government official we want to root for.
The journalistic endeavors and the effort to introduce changes are substantive and vital. But Nanau take the extra step of trying them together with glimpses into the life of Tedy Ursuleanu, one of the surivors of the Collective Fire who was left severely scarred. Tedy’s story helps ground the experience, serving as a reminder that all of these levels of incompetence, greed, and corruption impacted real people who will never stop paying for the crimes of those in power.
Collective is a must-see. It doesn’t provide easy answers and doesn’t come with end with a satisfying resolution. Instead, it serves as a reminder that a free press is the most powerful tool we have to hold leaders accountable. But even the deepest investigations require us to pay attention and to do something about it.