It’s like a scene out of a nightmare: A singer is howling onstage as his band thrashes behind him. When the number is done, he notices something is on fire. That’s not part of the show, he says. The camera whips around, as if the person holding it is trying to see what the man is talking about. You can make out an odd, glowing light emanating from behind a pillar. Then, in a matter of seconds, the entire ceiling of the nightclub seems to go up in flames. The crowd suddenly runs en masse toward the back exits, instantly creating a bottleneck. The image begins to jostle. Screams fill the soundtrack. We are witnessing a disaster in real time.
This blaze, which happened on October 30th, 2015, in a rock club in Bucharest named Colectiv, killed 27 people and injured another 180. Collective, the outstanding documentary from Romanian filmmaker Alexander Nanau (now in theaters and on demand via Amazon), begins by describing the incident and its aftermath in an opening disclaimer; when he decides to show you actual footage of the fire taken by a witness in the club, it’s a full-on gut-punch. This is only the first tragedy of many, however. Some four months after the inferno, 37 more concertgoers — many of whom had severe but not necessarily life-threatening burns — die while being treated at local hospitals. The public is outraged, as are the media. One journalist in particular smells a gigantic, burrowing rat.
That is Catalin Tolontan, the editor-in-chief of Bucharest’s daily newspaper Sports Gazette, and the closest thing to a shining white knight that Nanau’s movie offers up. Despite the newspaper’s seeming focus on football scores, the man and his team (including a chain-smoking, take-no-shit female reporter named Mirela Neag) have serious investigative chops. Listening to parents mourn the loss of children, he begins to snoop around. Sources tell him that most of the patients were killed by bacterial infections, which leads Tolontan to a warehouse owned by Hexi Pharma. They’re responsible for the disinfectants used in the local burn wards. These same disinfectants, he finds out, have not only been forced on hospitals but have also been diluted down to the point that they’re practically useless — hence the rampant infections and fatalities. An article is published in the Gazette, which sends shock waves through Romania’s temporary government and its healthcare system. A scandal is exposed, which turns out to be merely the tip of a skyscraper-sized iceberg.
That story alone — of how a crack team of muckrakers managed to uncover a major story that their more “serious” media counterparts missed (or were steered away from) — would have been enough to give viewers a compelling shoe-leather-vérité procedural. And indeed, Collective‘s first half or so plays like a docu-version of something like All the President’s Men and Spotlight, where tense conversations around conference tables, writers huddled over computers, and editors issuing orders from behind desks makes for compelling drama. But Nanau keeps pushing forward, following his protagonists and watching them pull an errant thread until, suddenly, the whole sweater is unraveling. The deceit doesn’t stop at doctors who erase “infections” on records, or, as one nauseating piece of footage shows us, allow maggots to infest a festering wound. (Nanau’s father is a physician, and you can practically feel the outrage emanating from behind the camera in these sequences.) It doesn’t stop at a few bad corporate apples, either.
Rather, the malfeasance on display here is a top-down situation, and you soon realize that this isn’t a look at one horrific incident so much as a portrait of metastasizing social rot. A major suspect in the case against Hexi is found dead — possibly a suicide, probably murder. Once you see that a hospital manager, who’s recorded berating his staff, could pass for an extra on The Sopranos, you wonder how, exactly, he got this job. The tendrils of organized crime, which seem to be wrapped around any number of Romanian institutions, appear to have a vested interest in this investigation not going much further. (“Mobsters don’t care about context,” Tolontan says. “They’re mobsters.”) The government’s health minister resigns in disgrace, and is replaced by Vlad Voiculescu, an idealistic young politician who used to be a patients-rights activist. Nanau is there in the halls of power, capturing this newbie coming up against a bureaucracy fueled by bribery and backroom deals and failing to make much of a dent. You keep waiting for someone to say to him, “Forget it, Jake, it’s Bucharest.”
And even then, Collective keeps going, patiently and methodically, digging even deeper through the morass of power, corruption, and lies. For those of us who’ve been following the Romanian New Wave since it started cresting in the mid-aughts, it’s hard to watch Nanau’s doc and not think of the movement’s Rosetta stone: Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarsecu (2005), an abyss-black satire about an elderly man who becomes our Virgil in a tour of the hell that was the country’s post-Ceaușescu healthcare system. It shares that landmark work’s obsession with a medical industry broken beyond repair, and certainly acts as a nonfiction complement to the New Wave’s rigorously formal storytelling, slow-burn pacing, and obsessiveness over language and institutions. But unlike Lazarsecu, this extraordinary dissection of across-the-board immorality hasn’t quite given up on the country’s citizens just yet. It lauds the effort to root out all systematic evil and risk one’s life in the process. Nanau could have ended on any number of larger victories scored here. Instead, he circles back to a father we see weeping over his son near the film’s beginning, letting us see that he’s taken a few steps toward healing. It goes out not with a bang, but with the same muted, earth-scorching — and dare we say, hopeful — whimper that characterizes the movie as a whole.
Watching Collective when it premiered on the fall festival circuit last year, it was easy to see that it should be considered a flat-out masterpiece regardless of timing. Yet to watch it, or rewatch it, now is to experience something even deeper. It’s a story of a nation’s inability to take care of its citizens that comes to us in the middle of a pandemic that’s crippling America’s economy and killing its citizens. It’s a tale of a government more concerned with lining its own pockets and holding onto power right as the single most corrupt administration in our country’s history attempts to discredit a democratic election. It’s a story of a fourth estate that is lauded — Tolontan is deemed something of a national hero — rather than designated an enemy of the people. The film takes its name from the nightclub now associated with a tragedy, but by the end of it, the notion of “collective” has taken on a whole new meaning. “Indifference kills” chants a crowd protesting outside a hospital, and it is the act of coming together and actually caring about the society you want to live in that can signal a potential sea change. This only works we’re in this together, the film reminds us. There is indeed strength in numbers.