Twenty-six people died inside Colectiv, a nightclub in Bucharest, when the venue caught fire on October 30, 2015. Among the dead were members of Goodbye to Gravity, the metal band who was performing that night. Even more people died after the fire, and not just because they succumbed to their wounds. Collective, the alarming documentary about the fire and its aftermath, exposes how systemic corruption in Romania’s healthcare system led to senseless, easily preventable deaths. Director Alexander Nanau follows the dedicated journalists and bureaucrats who push for accountability, and while their efforts are important, the film suggests that reform is impossible when every system is stained.
Nanau divides the film into roughly two sections. The first follows reporters at The Sports Gazette, a daily newspaper, who find themselves pursuing a story way outside their regular beat. Led by the tenacious Catalin Tolontan, the reporters realize that so many burn victims were dying from infection because, quite simply, the medical tools were not clean enough. How could that even happen? It turns out that the chemicals used to clean the instruments were significantly diluted, to the point they were no longer effective. Collective films all these discoveries like a political thriller, with the chain of evidence leading to crooked businessmen, unqualified hospital administrators, and even gangsters with government ties.
The second, arguably more intriguing section follows Vlad Voiculescu, Romania’s newly appointed Minister of Health. Earnest and idealistic, Vlad is a former patient advocate who tries to reform the healthcare system from the inside. Some of his ideas are simple: he wants hospital administrators to demonstrate basic competencies, and not have any direct political affiliation. What he does not anticipate – and what creates a sense of hopeless outrage – is how outsiders exploit his ideas for political gain. Throughout these strains, Nanau returns to the surviving victims and their families, who could easily be forgotten as the fallout of this fire seemingly spreads to all facets of public life.
Unlike Alex Gibney, another documentary filmmaker who routinely exposes government scandals, Nanau does not lead his audience through narration or visuals. Collective opts for a “fly on the wall” approach, leading to nonstop dialogue where – piece by piece – we begin to understand the convergence of failures that led to this tragedy. Collective includes about a year of footage (the film ends with Romania’s 2016 legislative election), and even without a clear timeline, it is a masterpiece of shrewd editing. As we learn each new bit of information and as each additional whistleblower comes forward, the story clicks into view.
One undercurrent to Collective is how national identity factors into each decision and controversy. As burn victims were sent to hospitals across Romania, health officials first promised they would receive care, “as good as in Germany.” That did not happen, obviously, yet the phrase speaks to a larger sense of inferiority as a former communist country attempts to catch up with a modernized, efficient Europe. Some of the journalists and politicians worry that things could be as bad as they were twenty-five years ago so the Ceaucescu regime remains a trauma that still looms over everyone and everything.
This is made abundantly clear when Vlad, eager to make sure patients get the best possible care, sends some of them Vienna for surgery. A populist politician seizes this opportunity, arguing that Romania is strong enough to handle these surgeries on their own. These types of clashing worldviews befall every country, one way or another, although they are rarely this clearly defined.
There are many comparisons between Collective and Spotlight, another film about dogged journalists who take on the system and expose deep faults within an intimidating structure. There is some of that to this documentary, and yet I think the more useful baseline for comparison is, weirdly enough, the second season of The Wire. You may recall that the season opens up with a singular crime – bodies of women turning up in the Port of Baltimore – and ultimately sees that crime as an inevitable consequence of a system beyond any one person’s control. Toward the end of Collective, Vlad is on the phone with his father who implores him to leave Romania, that it’s a lost cause. It is a credit to the film that you understand his father’s point, and still think the country is worth fighting for, anyway.