Bitter pill: ‘Collective’

By Craig Mathieson

This staggering documentary exposes institutionalised corruption in Romanian hospitals

Cătălin Tolontan in Collective. © Alexander Nanau Production, Samsa Film, HBO Europe 2019. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Everywhere the camera turns in the remarkable Romanian documentary Collective (in cinemas April 8), something is in flames. It begins with the noise-proofing material in the Bucharest nightclub Colectiv, which catches alight during a band’s performance and kills numerous patrons, but the ensuing political firestorm soon encompasses the flagrant denials of culpability by a government forced to resign, and finally it reaches the venal underpinnings of a ruling system predicated on corruption. Quietly staggering in scene after scene, Alexander Nanau’s film is not only a jarring 21st century history of official disdain, profit’s insatiable hunger and the media’s response, but also a stark warning to any democratic society.

Nanau’s documentary, shot over 14 months, details the story with an on-the-spot cinéma-vérité technique, eschewing narration, backstory and extraneous detail. You have to keep up with the journalists the movie alights on, work at their pace, notice what they’re spotting. A single introductory screen of text is your only briefing, but it’s enough. On October 30, 2015, during a gig at Colectiv by the metalcore band Goodbye to Gravity, pyrotechnic effects started a fire that immediately killed 27 people. Even as it emerged that the club lacked fire exits and a sprinkler system, despite official inspections, another 37 of the blaze’s burn victims were dying of rampant infections in Romanian hospitals, in the face of government promises that they would get exemplary treatment.

The public outrage would surmount official explanations and result in mass protests that eventually led to the downfall of Prime Minister Victor Ponta’s Social Democratic Party government. Seen on phone footage the fire is terrifying, with its cacophony of overwhelming light and screams, but the investigation is more shattering. Led by a group of journalists at the daily tabloid Sports Gazette, the first revelation is that the company supplying disinfectant to Romania’s hospitals, Hexi Pharma, was diluting its products at 10 times the recommended ratio, so that the active ingredients were close to negligible. Most of the 37 burn victims who died subsequently were killed by the hospitals meant to be caring for them.

Collective is one of the great journalism films, but the acrid depths of the failings it reveals doesn’t allow for satisfaction. The central trio of reporters is led by Cătălin Tolontan – you learn his full name when demonstrators chant it approvingly – and they are diligent but shocked, first by a blatant cover-up and then the malfeasance they uncover: Hexi Pharma’s vast bribery of hospital managers, offshore accounts and official complicity. “If the press bows down to the authorities, the authorities will mistreat the citizens,” Tolontan declares during one of his television news appearances, and the mistreatment is so cavalier and widespread that by the time whistleblowers are providing phone footage of one of the hospitalised burn victims with maggots infesting their wounds, the journalists have acquired the thousand-yard stares of military veterans.

For two decades now, Romanian dramas such as Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation have been illuminating the insidious effects of compromise and corruption in the country, but Collective uses the health system to show how such influences are institutionalised. As a counterpoint to the journalists on the outside, Nanau got access to the new health minister, Vlad Voiculescu, who was on the inside as part of a government of technocrats, placed in power for a year by Romania’s president to make reforms before new elections. Given access to the levers of power and with a background as a patients’ rights activist, Voiculescu is in turn stymied and shocked by the barriers he faces. “We doctors, we’re no longer human beings,” another whistleblower tells him, and the level of fraud is so astoundingly complete that sometimes it can only be appreciated as the blackest of satire.

In Nanau’s Academy Award–nominated documentary, the camera’s observations are astute and the editing witheringly precise – it cuts from a health ministry spin doctor hashing out an anodyne response in a meeting to him delivering it at a press conference. Elsewhere scenes from a survivor’s recovery ensure that the human cost remains palpable. There are moments that would make more sense in a political thriller, including the involvement of the intelligence services, but the politics of the film are brutally contemporary. It is the Social Democratic Party’s attacks on reformers as part of its concluding election campaign, complete with compliant elements of the media, that offers readily apparent parallels for this country. The film doesn’t deign to offer the hope that all is cured – the status quo is too engrained for that. But this essential film shows the strength required to expose corruption, and that is enough. Collective’s bitter, necessary truths can’t be extinguished.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is a television critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, an author, and the creator of the Binge-r streaming newsletter.


Cătălin Tolontan in Collective. © Alexander Nanau Production, Samsa Film, HBO Europe 2019. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

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