In the past decade-plus, a handful of Romanian directors (Christian Mungiu, Corneliu Porumboiu, etc.) have created a body of dramatic work that is perhaps unmatched in its ability to come to grips with the way official actions (i.e., bureaucratic behavior) undermine the institutions that are supposed to support a workable society. From abortion to educational opportunity, the topics these films tackle have a universal relevance even if the particular horrors exposed are specific to Romania. Collective, a documentary by Alexander Nanau, provides insight into the kind of obstacles truth-seekers are up against in Romania because it addresses a real-life tragedy by following the players whose aim is to expose the corruption that not only led to that tragedy, but exacerbated it afterwards.
At the center of the story is a fire that broke out at the titular Bucharest nightclub in 2015 at a heavy metal concert that killed 27 on the spot and injured 180. The club had no fire exits, and while such a lapse in public safety protocols is enough to warrant its own hardline investigation, the movie’s real target becomes something larger and more insidious. In hospital, many of the survivors ended up dying anyway, but not because of the burns they suffered in the fire. They died of bacterial infections they contracted while in intensive care. The government as represented by the health ministry puts up what looks like the usual PR stonewall to hide the fact that the company that imported the disinfectants diluted them to one-tenth their normal strength in order to increase profits, and a small group of journalists (mostly working for a sports tabloid), activists, and victims advocates refuse to allow the coverup to proceed without pushback. Nanau covers it all in real time, keeping his cameras in the thick of the fight rather than summing up the story through retrospective interviews with principal players, the way most documentaries would handle it. Consequently, the movie is not only relentlessly compelling as drama, it’s edifying in the way it treats each element of the tale as its own unique factoid. When a health official uses language to obfuscate some deeper truth, we see the statement given and then the immediate reaction from a journalist who tells the camera that it’s all bullshit. As the authorities try to play down the ensuing disinfectant scandal, we see the key reporters doggedly keeping it in the public sphere even while the mainstream media, especially TV, paint their journalism as mere scaremongering to sell more papers.
Though Nanau also reserves sufficient time to spotlight the victims and their suffering, the gist of the movie is its slow, methodical revelation of the rot that permeates the entire health infrastructure. And while the viewer may find it heartening that the reporting on display brings down much of this infrastructure (one official commits suicide), thus paving the way for a new health minister who was once a victims’ advocate himself, the idea of “resistance” is so prevalent on every side that it’s easy to wonder what kind of effect the new man will have on a system in which doctors cannot be expected to get ahead in their profession without taking bribes to make sure the “old ways” stay the way they are. Nanau is blessed with almost unbelievable access, not only to the people fighting the system but to those defending it, and yet his movie doesn’t feel like a happy accident of being in the right place at the right time. It’s a fully engaged work of truth-telling, deliberate and fiercely intelligent.
In Romanian. Opening Oct. 2 in Tokyo at Image Forum Aoyama (03-5766-0114), Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608).
Collective home page in Japanese.
photo (c) Alexander Nanau Production, HBO Europe, Samsa Film 2019