Romanian documentary film “Collective”, which was nominated for Best Documentary Oscar as well as Best International Film Oscar early in this month, is often sobering in its phlegmatic but angry chronicle of outrage and frustration toward alarming systemic corruption. It is very apparent to us right from the beginning that the whole system in question is deeply corrupt and incompetent to say the least, but the scale of corruption over the system is so massive and complicated that even those good people trying to do the right things are frequently frustrated and exasperated as their efforts for reform and justice are thwarted again and again.
Everything began from one big tragic incident which happened at a club named Colectiv in October 2015. During that unfortunate evening, a heavy metal rock concert was being held with hundreds of attendees in the club, and a fire suddenly broke out in the middle of the concert. As shown from a devastating video clip shot during that time, the fire swiftly engulfed the whole interior of the club within a few minutes, and this resulted in the death of 27 people and the injuries of 180 people.
When it was subsequently turned out that the club did not receive any proper safety and health inspection in addition to not having any emergency exit at all, the public protests against the corruption and incompetence of government officials followed, and people became all the more furious when 37 more victims died at hospitals during next several months. This additional tragedy clearly signified to everyone in Romania that something was really very wrong with the public medical care system of their country, and more subsequent protests in public eventually led to the resignation of the Social Democratic Party, which was the ruling party at that time, from the government.
During its first half, the documentary mainly focuses on the group efforts of a local journalist named Cătălin Tolontan and several other fellow journalists at his sports newspaper. Although they did not have much experience in investigative journalism at the beginning, Tolontan and his close colleagues including Mirela Neag were determined to get to the bottom of the deep corruption inside the public medical care system, and what they came to discover thanks to their diligent efforts as well as a number of brave informers willing to talk to them was pretty shocking to say the least. For example, most of public hospitals in the country had purchased disinfectants from a certain big local company, but these disinfectants were actually diluted to the levels way below their standards from the very beginning, and this horrific fraud had accordingly resulted in frequent bacterial infections, which can be quite lethal especially to serious burn patients.
When Tolontan and his colleagues broke this shocking news in public, the interim government, which mostly consisted of technocrats, did not do much while only occupied with saving its face as much as it could. Its officials initially denied that there were problems with these disinfectants, but then, once the public pressure became too much to handle, they belatedly recognized the problems with disinfectants, while blatantly denying whatever they said and presented to Tolontan and many other reporters before.
As the outrages over those faulty disinfectants were continued, the CEO of that disinfectant company was subsequently arrested and then investigated for a while, but then, what do you know, he died under a very questionable circumstance not long after he was eventually released. Considering that this dirty rotten scoundrel, who can be regarded as the 21st century equivalent of Orson Welles’ memorably amoral character in “The Third Man” (1949), probably could testify against numerous officials bribed by him, his sudden death felt too timely to Tolontan and many others, but there is no evidence of foul play even at present.
In the meantime, the new Minister of Health entered the picture after his two predecessors resigned within a short period of time. He is a former civil activist named Vlad Voiculescu, and the second half of the documentary follows his admirable efforts for the total reform of the public medical care system. While earnestly trying to restore the public image of the interim government, Voiculescu also embarked on fixing the system as much as he and his people could, but, not so surprisingly, they soon found themselves struggling a lot with many obstacles popping here and there. Whenever there was some progress, they were always pushed back more by the intractability of their corrupt and incompetent bureaucratic system, and they were all the more frustrated as watching how some prominent local politician and popularist newspapers eagerly exploited this deadlock for their political benefit.
The narrative of the documentary finally culminates to the following national elections, and it is not much of a spoiler to tell you that the outcomes were pretty depressing to not only Voiculescu and Tolontan but also many others around them. Even at that narrative point, director/co-writer/co-editor Alexander Nanau, who also served as the cinematographer of his documentary, maintains his calm, restrained storytelling approach as before, and the last scene, which is involved with the family of one of the dead victims, is quietly harrowing in the very last shot.
Often powerful in its clear and incisive presentation of important and urgent social issues, “Collective” will surely remind you again of why the transparency and competence in public service systems are so important to us. This is definitely one of the best documentaries of last year in addition to being another stunning work from Romanian cinema, and I wholeheartedly recommend you to see it as soon as possible.