Review: Collective

America’s healthcare system is far from anyone’s gold standard, and far too many people can’t get the care they need or can’t afford it when they can. As disheartening as it all is, it somehow pales in comparison to the massive corruption, mismanagement and malpractice discovered in Romania’s hospital system in Alexander Nanau’s eye-opening and completely riveting Collective.

In October 2015, a fire broke out at the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest; without proper safety measures in place (including just one emergency exit that the hundreds of concert-goers rushed to, causing a stampede), and with a ceiling made of highly flammable sound-proofing foam, the fire—ignited by a spark from the band’s pyrotechnics—spread quickly and killed 26 people on site. Another 38 people died in hospitals following the fire, many of them without life-threatening burns or injuries. Collective explores how an ill-prepared, sub-par hospital system run by corrupt politicians ultimately cost innocent lives, all of it a major scandal in the country initially uncovered through the dogged investigative journalism of the staff at Bucharest’s Gazeta Sporturilor. 

With remarkable access to both the reporting team at the newspaper and the Ministry of Health held responsible for the devastating circumstances, Collective observes it all unfolding in ways rarely seen by someone merely picking up a copy of the day’s paper or watching a government press conference. Nanau smartly begins the film at the beginning of the story, including footage recovered from inside the nightclub on that fateful night (some of the most harrowing images in the film). In the weeks following the fire, victims recovering from their injuries in the hospital begin dying from from infections acquired while under the care of the facility, clearly the opposite of what’s supposed to happen when one is hospitalized. Hearing of the deaths, investigative journalist Catalin Tolontan and his colleagues begin to ask the kinds of pressing questions that any reporter worth their salt would want answers to. How does this happen? How could it have been prevented? How in such a sterile environment do raging bacterial infections kill so many? Who’s responsible for making the decisions that ultimately led to a lapse in care and the devastating loss of life?

One would be forgiven for seeing in Collective the kind of plot line usually reserved for sweeping true crime sagas where every moment reveals new twists, turns and frustrations in the narrative. The fact that it’s all real—from the mobsters arrested for their role in securing bribes for healthcare managers to the doctors and staff who come forward with their stories of corruption, to the poignancy of one of the surviving victim’s rehabilitation journey through art and technology—makes it all the more stunning. The filmmaker’s observational style means one is not always sure about where a certain protagonist or new development will lead, but in the end, he’s woven together this complicated and messy story (as lived by the Romanians experiencing it) into something, if undoubtedly tragic, still rather beautiful.

As the truth of the healthcare system’s corruption comes to light, making national and international news, the film witnesses a striking changing of the guard as one Health Minister resigns in shame and is replaced by Vlad Voiculescu, a patients’ rights activist. Voiculescu, barely in his 30s and with a very Pete Buttigieg air about him (young, politically active, whip smart and plain spoken), opens the ministry not only to Nanau and his cameras but to the country desperate for answers and solutions. He confronts obstacle after obstacle in his effort to reform the system and serve the citizens who use it; through it all he seems to never lose sight of what’s right. We also meet burn victim Tedy Ursuleanu, an architect the film follows as she’s fitted with prosthetics and poses for a photographer’s camera, portraits that will go on to hang in an exhibition in a gallery. Though much of her head and body are covered in burn scars and she had to have her fingers amputated, she remains a positive force for victim rights, using her experience to push for change. In later scenes, one of the portraits of Usuleanu hangs in Voiculescu’s office, an ever-present reminder of the very human cost of the failed government systems they’re trying to change.

In this way, Collective skillfully navigates its way through the film’s many protagonists and their respective experiences; Tolontan shows up at Voiculescu’s press conferences to press him on the latest updates from the ministry, while Usuleanu attends victim support meetings that introduce us to the families and loved ones of those who’ve died, and so on. Whether the filmmaker intended to make a sharply observed chronicle of a government cracking under the pressure of its own corruption or a nuanced exploration of the men and women intent on holding that government to account and changing it for the better, it doesn’t really matter. He’s done both, and to an exceptional degree.

Collective is now streaming via virtual cinemas, including Music Box Theatre. A portion of your rental goes to support the venue while it’s closed.