“Incompetence was killing the victims”: Alexander Nanau on his health-service exposé Collective

The astonishing documentary Collective follows the trail of deadly corruption lit by a 2015 fire in a Romanian nightclub. Its director discusses the ramifications of demagoguery in the middle of a health crisis.

Updated: 21 November 2020

By Nick Bradshaw

Collective (2020)
Sight and Sound

In October 2015, at the climax of a raucous performance by the band Goodbye to Gravity denouncing corruption in the Romanian state, a fire tore through the popular Bucharest nightclub Colectiv, trapping and killing 27 – another 38 died in hospital.

It turned out that the club had no emergency exits – backhanders had smoothed over that deficiency – but as Alexander Nanau’s stunning observational documentary Collective records, those flames were the harbingers of a much greater firestorm that would engulf the state, as the investigative journalist Catalin Tolontan, his team and a series of whistleblowers uncover a trail of lethal corruption in the health service, from disinfectant diluted by the suppliers to entire hospitals that had been improperly licensed.

And that’s just act one. In act two, after demonstrators bring down the government, the patients’ rights campaigner Vlad Voiculescu is recruited as the new minister of health and attempts to purge the system from the inside. (As with Tolontan, his faith in Nanau’s project is repaid in gripping close-access footage.)

The poison is systemic, though, and in act three a series of populist opponents assail Voiculescu as a traitor, in league with foreigners to sabotage the nation’s healthcare. Arriving amid a pandemic that has exploited and exacerbated all our political fissures, the film plays as a stark fable for us all.

The Romanian-born Nanau grew up in Germany after emigrating with his family in 1990, aged ten; after studying film and theatre in Berlin he moved back to Romania to make his second film, The World According to Ion B (2010), a portrait of a celebrated but homeless pop-artist in Bucharest. His second film, Toto and His Sisters (2014), followed a fractured Roma family in and out of drug abuse and incarceration; Collective, his third, launched at the Venice Film Festival last year. He spoke with me by Zoom in October while preparing for its UK and US releases.

Alexander Nanau

How much of what emerges surprised you while you were filming?

The biggest surprise wasn’t that there was corruption in Romania – that’s normal here. Growing up outside Romania, in a different society, I’ve never come to accept it, but here people do just take an envelope when they go to the doctor. And like everybody, I knew the political class was both corrupt and incompetent; after the fire, when the nation was grieving and they would act like professionals in front of reporters and tell us they had the hospitals and ambulances organised and the rescue under control, it just seemed like a bad joke – these are people who should never have been in politics.

But after we started to film, what was shocking was the level of their lack of humanity, because we started to understand how their incompetence was killing the victims. We might not have known that a burn patient needs to be treated in a burn unit – but they knew, and that the hospitals were hiding infections. So basically they knew that most of the victims would get infected through their open wounds and die, and nevertheless they refused to fly them out [of the country]. We felt like this couldn’t be true: people can’t really do something like this to each other.

How much did you identify with the investigative work of the journalists you were following?

I don’t know if I could say I identify. While I’m working I try to keep a curiosity about something I don’t know, and here that was both the responsibility of a journalist – how does he share information with his readers? – and the fight of the new minister of health. My job was to be as objective as possible and watch the real-life drama of how people act and react with this pressure, and try to pass it on cinematically.

But I think, as an emigrant who’s always felt like an outsider, I was especially curious about why people dedicate their life’s work to the society they’re living in. And that started in me with the demonstrations that followed the fire, because it felt like a young generation on the streets, marching for their society in a way I’d never done.

Gazeta Sporturilor investigation editor Catalin Tolontan

Your three-act structure – corruption, reform, reaction – suggests that the struggle for clean politics is a constant.

The way I wanted the film to work is in the end to put it all in the viewer’s lap and say, “OK, from here on… The struggle of good and evil is ongoing around me, but what is my life attitude and position when I encounter these things?” I think that’s the most the film can do. It was the same with the ending: the story has to pass the baton to the viewer in terms of reflection, because in the end I think it’s a story about attitude.

It’s scary seeing how many people follow along with the lies of the demagogues.

While we were filming in 2016, the first thing that hit was Brexit. Then came Trump and so on, but that was our first understanding that this form of populism – which exists more in Eastern European countries, for sure, with all these corrupt politicians who do not really govern in the service of the people – is now popping up everywhere. For example, during this pandemic, the Guardian reported on how the UK government bought medical equipment for millions of pounds without any public tender. It’s the same story as in Romania; governments lie about the pandemic – “It’s nothing, it’s not severe, it won’t be so hard” – and wait for it to be a crisis because in a crisis they can steal more.

What was shocking was the lack of humanity – they knew most of the burn victims would get infected and die.Alexander Nanau

How have Romanians reacted to the film?

We opened it in Romania two weeks before the cinemas closed down because of the pandemic, and had nearly 25,000 viewers – a record for a documentary. We travelled the country for a week, and had full houses, rooms of 900 people, most of them really young. And then we had to stop. But a month later it went to HBO Europe, and again within ten days it was No 1 on the platform.

People ask what has it changed, and honestly I never intended to change anything in the society; I believe in this very personal connection between a viewer and the film, and hope it will just disturb everyone who watches it and challenge him to ask questions of himself. But what I know from journalists is that the number of whistleblowers in Romania exploded after the film was released. Tolontan’s sports newspaper was bought by a Swiss outlet, and he’s built even more investigative teams, and they’re now the strongest force watching the government. There are investigations every day – but it’s still hard to keep up with all the politicians’ scandals. But at least people have started to talk, and not just play along, not participate any more. It’s encouraging.

Burn victim and artist Tedy Ursuleanu, posing for a photo shoot

You punctuate the film with images of the artwork made by one of the survivors of the fire. Do you see art-making as another layer of the fight?

I think art, if it’s done well and the emotional intention behind it is strong and good, is always reflexive. And cinema, and storytelling through it, is the most powerful way for us to really identify with somebody else. When you come out, you have to hold up a mirror and compare yourself. I definitely think during this time of misinformation that is everywhere that we might understand why, even in documentary, we need people who spend time following and condensing a story to give a viewer the most objective experience so he can reflect on himself.

I was discussing this question with other filmmakers recently, during this pandemic, and we all agreed that we don’t feel like telling our own stories in the middle of it; we feel like life is telling its own story, and we just have to step back and try to understand what is happening. So I think art also always needs distance.

Did you think about other films made about hospitals, or journalism, when you started work on Collective? Some of the touchstone films of the Romanian New Wave of the 2000s happen to focus on healthcare dramas; then again some of Frederick Wiseman’s movies describe healthcare institutions…

It’s hard to say because when I start a film, choosing the characters and trying to grasp its theme, the form comes very slowly, so I watch everything I can get my hands on that might inform it or help me understand how a world can be translated into cinema. I watched every important film about journalism, for sure, and every important film about hospitals – like the [many] Polish ones. And then it all gets mixed up and condensed in my head. Going back, Frederick Wiseman was an influence from the very beginning, when I decided that observational documentary storytelling was what I wanted to do. But at the same time it was Robert Drew, it was the Maysles brothers, and I was also in love with the new British cinema, which informed how I thought about reality.

And then, when I came back to Romania, it was not so much the hospital film, The Death of Mr Lazarescu, though I think is brilliant – but more the film by Christian Muntiu, Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days, which made me understand the society I’d been brought up in until I was ten but then felt cut off from. That’s maybe the biggest influence that attracted me to the Romanian cinema.

Campaigner turned health minister Vlad Voiculescu

How did you find your calling making observational documentaries?

It was a mixture of things. So I was in film school – and also doing theatre, and very interested in working with actors – but studying fiction filmmaking at the DFFB (the Film and Television Academy Berlin). But it was during the documentary classes, when I saw the Maysles films and Robert Drew films, that I realised you can make films with real-life people and they become bigger than life, and even more of an inspiration for a viewer than the famous actors that you see different roles in different films. That was a wake up: that it’s really something to manage to make a real-life story as strong as a fiction film.

At the same time… we were all very young – too young, I had the feeling, to know what we wanted to talk about. I felt a necessity to live more before I started making [fiction] films, and observational filmmaking is the best way of living and gathering life experiences, by plunging into the lives of other people and trying to understand them, especially – like in photography, really – through the limitation of an image.

Then I had a chance to do a film about theatre – about the staging of a play by Peter Zadek, who was Germany’s big theatre director but was also my mentor for several years. That [Peter Zadek Stages Peer Gynt, 2006] was my first observational film, and I had to edit it at night because the film school didn’t approve, and I distributed it myself because the distributors said nobody would want to screen it, and I made quite good money with it…

How does that training with actors influence your interaction with your documentary subjects?

The thing is, I never intervene, I never ask people to do things or to act something out, so I really film observationally. And I get a kick out of managing to capture things as they happen, and then editing them in my head into a story of the drama of a day, and how it could evolve into a film narrative. But I never intervene.

That said, for sure, theatre had a big influence on me, because it gave me the time to work with actors, or to sit back and watch Peter Zadek work with them… One thing [you learn] when you work with actors and you do run-throughs and give them time: you learn what communication really means between two people, between the director and an actor, and how much directing implies just a relationship that you build up without talking about things.

Everybody’s biggest fear when being filmed is how other people will judge this image of them.Alexander Nanau

I think this is something important that I took into observation filmmaking – how I decide who to follow, who will be the character: who gets me so curious about their personality that I feel there’s something I have to learn from them, to explore and understand from them. It’s the same curiosity with which the theatre director works with actors and, let’s call it, their hidden personality, the character they have to portray. It’s a relationship of curiosity and trust: you work with them towards discovering the character for themselves. You don’t talk to the actor and tell him “That was nice” or “That was not good”. Good acting comes out of the trust that an actor has in you to be himself.

In observational documentary filmmaking it’s the same: it’s about the relationship I have to the people I film. You just give them – these real-life characters – a frame in which they feel safe; they feel you would not betray or judge them. That’s one of the most important things when you work with real people, that you won’t judge them, because everybody’s biggest fear when being filmed is how other people will judge this image of them. Once they understand – again, without words – that you could be one of them, that you identify with them, that the way you see them has something to do with their very authenticity, then they feel more comfortable; and you can see during a production how the footage gets better and better, because the more that you are with them, the more they feel fine, that the project part of their life. They can be themselves.

Further reading

Collective takes a scalpel to the contagion of corruption

Alexander Nanau’s coolly observed portrait of the aftermath of a deadly fire, exposing equally deadly fraud in the Romanian health service, puts the spotlight back on us all as public citizens.

By Trevor Johnston

Collective takes a scalpel to the contagion of corruption

The new issue of Sight and Sound

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke: insights on and from the Japanese auteur Plus: Mica Levi on their innovative score for The Zone of Interest – Víctor Erice interviewed about his masterful return to feature filmmaking, Close Your Eyes – a festival report from a politically charged Berlinale

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Originally published: 20 November 2020