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.

20 November 2020

By Trevor Johnston

Collective (2020)
Sight and Sound

▶︎ Collective is available on BFI Player and other streaming platforms, Blu-ray, DVD and digital download.

The images are, to say the least, extremely distressing. Mobile phone footage captured the conflagration which engulfed Bucharest’s Colectiv nightclub in October 2015, trapping concertgoers in a venue without proper fire exits. Flames fill the frame, panicked screams the soundtrack.

It’s a vision of utter hell, but from such carnage sprang a wave of public indignation which brought down the ruling Social Democrat administration. If this marked a victory for democratic will over ingrained bureaucratic corruption, the triumph was short-lived, however, as this observational feature doc, put together with scalpel precision by Romanian-German director Alexander Nanau, makes bracingly clear.

With a new technocrat government given a year to steady the ship before new elections, Nanau began filming with dogged editor and reporter Catalin Tolontan and his colleagues on the Gazeta Sporturilor (‘Sports Gazette (!)) as they investigated why more survivors of the blaze died in hospital afterwards than on the night of the fire – killed by bacterial poisoning after deliberately diluted disinfectants resulted in non-existent surgical hygiene.

Gazeta Sporturilor investigation editor Catalin Tolontan

The narrative resembles a Spotlight-style investigative thriller: we hear from insider informants and go on stakeouts. Eventually, it is revealed that pharma suppliers and medical professionals creamed off illicit cash while patients died unnecessarily.

Nanau, though, refuses to regard this uncovering of wrongdoing as an achievement in itself; he constructs his film from interwoven strands which offer a broader perspective on the administrative toil involved in effecting lasting change, and the crucial contributions of both individual moral choices and wider democratic movements in enabling such a process.

The medical context takes us back to Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr Lazarescu (2005), one of the first films to bring a resurgent Romanian cinema to international attention. Puiu’s spotlit the few kind souls who retained some moral purpose within a ramshackle, barely-functional system, operating as both realist exposé and spiritual parable.

Nanau’s documentary modus operandi feels more determinedly pragmatic, closer to the austere yet compelling institutional analyses and patient accretion of telling detail offered by Fred Wiseman. Like Wiseman, Nanau avoids expositional voiceover or direct interviews with his subjects; instead, his film builds its considerable power through keen observation and telling editorial juxtaposition.

Fire victim and artist Tedy Ursuleanu

Attention keeps returning to the talismanic figure of Tedy Ursuleanu, a survivor of the Colectiv fire who has become a victims’ activist, and in posing for artistic photo portraits becomes an emblem of pride and indomitability. In circumstances where she could have been consumed by anger, her serene desire to make something positive from her situation is humbling.

After the adulterated disinfectant scandal puts paid to the technocrat health minister, his replacement, Vlad Voiculescu, a former patients’ rights campaigner, reaches out to Ursuleanu, and even has one of her portraits on his office wall. His efforts at making an administrative difference become the focus of the film’s tightly coiled second half.

Whereas Tolontan and his reporters can expose abuses within the system, we appreciate that it’s up to white knights like Voiculescu to effect lasting change. Except the levels of bribery, nepotism, politicisation are so embedded within the health service, he finds himself in an absurdist Kafkaesque labyrinth as the clock ticks towards the upcoming elections.

Campaigner turned health minister Vlad Voiculescu

No wonder Voiculescu’s boyish features are soon looking careworn, as Nanau makes a point of capturing the participants in pensive moments, zeroing in on tyro minister and journalists pondering seemingly implacable opposing forces of greed and corruption.

Another key vignette is the unveiling of Ursuleanu’s portraits, Nanau framing the gallery visitors as they take in these confrontational images. Perhaps it’s a slightly obvious nudge, suggesting the power of art to give its viewers pause for thought, yet it’s certainly effective (combined with those myriad reaction shots elsewhere) in drawing in the film audience as well.

Ultimately, Nanau’s seemingly low-key approach, dialling down the potentially overwhelming emotions inherent in the material and eschewing reassurance that heroic saviours will somehow resolve everything, works brilliantly to underline the responsibility of each individual in contributing to a collective will for change.

As well as the Romanian electorate, the film’s viewers are implicated here too: notwithstanding the ghastly national specificity of what we see here, the film’s universal relevance is obvious – we each have to confront the idea that change starts with us, however daunting the prospect.

For that reason, what at first seems like a small-scale doc about gnarly, intractable corruption in Romania, turns out to be the product of a heroically ambitious, and stealthily achieved directorial vision. Riveting and provocative, this is surely an emblematic film for an era of global crisis and political atomisation.

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