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‘Collective’: a powerful argument for journalism

Dan Webster

Movie review: “Collective,” a documentary directed by Alexander Nanau, featuring Catalin Tolontan and Vlad Voiculesco. Streaming through Amazon Prime, Vudu, Google Play, etc.

In the original Danish television series “Forbrydelsen” – known as “The Killing” in English – the actor Lars Mikkelsen plays Troels Hartmann, a politician who wants to do the right thing but is thwarted by what we come to discover are the corrupt forces of government.

Hartmann’s story is only part of the overall plotline of “Forbrydelsen,” which ran for three seasons and – as the title indicates – revolves around a series of murder investigations. But it is an essential part, politics being the quagmire of conflicting interests that exists even in the most forward-thinking of Scandinavian countries.

And those conflicting interests all too often lead to corruption, in Denmark and elsewhere, as evidenced by the recent Romanian documentary titled “Collective.”

Named after a Bucharest nightclub that burned in 2015, resulting in the deaths of 64 people, “Collective” was directed and co-written (with Antoaneta Opris) by Alexander Nanau. Central to the film’s narrative is the investigation of the fire, and its aftermath, by the staff of a Bucharest newspaper.

The fire itself followed a familiar scenario. A rock group held a concert to promote its newest album, it used pyrotechnics to spice up the show, sparks set off a fire that spread quickly, inciting panic, and causing hundreds of concert-goers – as many as 400 – to rush toward a single exit, which was only half open. Only a few made it. It’s the kind of calamity that has happened in several countries, including the U.S.

What makes “Collective” special, though, is that the fire is only half the story. Yes, thousands of people took to the streets of Bucharest, accusing the government of corruption in allowing the concert to take place in an unsafe venue. And, yes, the protests – along with the resulting bad publicity – forced the sitting government officials to resign, including Prime Minister Victor Ponta.

Subsequent investigations would show that such unsafe conditions – all supposedly under review by government safety inspectors – were rampant throughout Romania, involving everything from incorrect fire permits to insufficient fire-fighting equipment. Such is what happens when bribes readily grease the palms of crooked bureaucrats.

But the investigation didn’t stop there. Because of the number of people injured in the fire was so great, Romania’s health system was overwhelmed. Several, especially those suffering from burns, were transported to other countries for treatment. Of those burn victims who remained in Romanian hospitals, though, at least 13 died from bacterial infections.

And that story is the one on which director Nanau’s documentary focuses. Central to the film is the journalist Catalin Tolontan, whose work for the Bucharest newspaper Sports Gazette – yes, the Sports Gazette – uncovers the fact that the deaths of the 13 were caused, at least in part, because the hospitals that treated them were using severely diluted disinfectants.

Nanau begins his film by covering a meeting at which some of the survivors, including one woman bearing burn scars and a mangled hand and family members of those who have died, testifying tearfully about what they have lost. Then he switches to the Sports Gazette office where Tolontan and his colleagues sift through reports, take (and make) phone calls, do a number of interviews with survivors and with both hospital and government officials – all in search of the truth behind why and how such mismanagement could happen.

Besides Tolontan, “Collective” has one other major player: Vlad Voiculescu, the country’s new health minister and a former patient’s rights advocate. Just as we watch journalist Tolotan and his team work their sources, sometimes staking out and photographing suspected criminals the way undercover police officers do, Voiculescu and his staff attempt to change the byzantine Romanian legal system to improve health care – but are stymied at every turn by a system that serves those privileged few who refuse to relinquish their hold on power.

In a film that proceeds deliberately toward its conclusion – that societal change is a long, slow and frustrating process – Nanau offers viewers a couple of shocking moments. One involves the apparent suicide of one corrupt individual, and the other is actual footage of the Colectiv fire itself, taken by a filmmaker who’d been recording the show (and who survived). The first raises suspicions of a possible mafia murder, while the second captures the sights and sounds of the hellish horror.

Nanau’s overall message, though, is similar to one that Alan J. Pakula delivered in his 1976 film “All the President’s Men” – that in a free society, it is the press that is best positioned to monitor government and keep it in check.

In this year of 2021, that’s a sentiment well worth remembering.

This review was broadcast previously on Spokane Public Radio.

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