By Jay Kuehner

As the opening credits of Alexander Nanau’s Collective rolled at a screening at TIFF, a fellow critic leaned to me and whispered, in a mantra-like tone, the name of an indelible Chinese documentary: Karamay. The implied message was tacitly understood: that Xu Xin’s colossal 2010 work on the aftermath of the eponymous Chinese fire (in which 325 people were killed, 288 of them schoolchildren) was the kind of landmark filmic memorial capable of speaking to tragedy of such a scale, the archetype to which a film like Collective might aspire, and invariably be diminished in comparison. Where Karamay is effectively a protracted vigil among the still grieving families of the deceased children, Collective operates in a less elegiac framework, acting as a disquisition into a venal Romanian healthcare system that sacrifices hospitalized survivors in a corrupt purgatory. The ruthless trampling, by physical and figurative means, of innocent citizens becomes the default point of conception and bereavement common to both films.

That Nanau’s disquisitive approach is substantively damning, without resorting to the morally vociferous tone of didactic documentaries, is ballast for its cause. Aside from harrowing footage taken inside Bucharest’s Colectiv nightclub as fire engulfed it in 2015, a conflagration that killed 27 and injured more than 100, Collective does not return to the scene of the disaster. An acknowledgement of the victims is discreetly sourced in an opening scene inside a support-group meeting, as families grieve the loss of their children and the camera glimpses visibly scarred survivors. Without betraying the memory of those who perished, the film immerses itself in the unfolding coverage of the fire’s aftereffects, training on an investigation undertaken by an unlikely crusader: the popular daily Gazeta Sporturilor, led by editor-in-chief Catalin Tolontan, who scarcely looks the part of a moral campaigner as he’s shown scribbling notes at a press conference. The inquest pursued by Tolontan and his colleagues is laid out meticulously as they pursue an answer to a central question: Why did 13 survivors of the Colectiv fire inexplicably die in hospital from treatable injuries, while the Ministry of Health assured families and public alike that they were receiving the best medical provision possible?

Accordingly, Collective is more record than remembrance, an investigative procedural that’s equally observational and true to its genre. As findings by the team of journalists are disclosed in relatively real time, the banal grind of news-bureau life is transformed into charged agency. Surveillance of the Hexi Pharma factory, where bags of disinfectant are delivered out the back door, turns up a villain: owner Dan Condrea, the wealthy doctor responsible for administering diluted disinfectant to hospitals throughout Romania. Whistleblowing sources from within the Bucharest hospital where burn victims languished, exposed to resistant bacteria, confirm the ongoing malfeasance of the hospital administration, and state complicity in this corruption. The scope of this malpractice is pernicious to the point of disbelief, and the shock of this revealed depravity—which is often harnessed as an organizing principle for activist-minded nonfiction filmmaking—incites public indignation and subsequent political protests, calling for the resignation of the health minister and the PSD-supported Ponta government. 

Collective’s scandalous plot, shaded with noir-ish intrigue as it is, nevertheless unfolds in the unremarkable proscenium of press conferences and news broadcasts, as Tolontan and his associates confront layer after layer of cover-ups that appear to have contaminated Romanian institutional and social life. A campaign to discredit Tolantan’s “vehement” attack on a rotten healthcare system, its chain of command reaching deep within the government hierarchy, blames the journalist for causing public hysteria while holding media pressure to account for Condrea’s sudden vehicular suicide. Theories of a “fake” crisis are floated within the amoral political vacui, as an act of damage control while protesters take to the streets demanding justice, lauding Gazeta Sporturilor for its persistence and courage. Tolantan’s defense of his profession speaks unheroically yet defiantly to a simple, lucid imperative: “to give people more knowledge about the power that shapes their lives.” 

While Tolantan’s team are the clear protagonists of the tale, Nanau is alert throughout to others who put up resistance to the hegemony of abuse. A whistleblowing anaesthetist who leaks ghastly images of neglected patients, their faces buried in sheets, can no longer bear the complicit silence: “What else needs to happen for things to change?” she implores. The new health minister, Vlad Voiculescu, a former patients’ rights advocate who is appointed amid great scrutiny, commits himself to transparency but struggles to effect change within a historic legacy of fraud. “In any sane society, a harmful product gets withdrawn immediately,” he bristles as he becomes increasingly direct in his pronouncements about lack of regulation; “Shouldn’t this committee have realized that it went wrong and changed it?” That conscience has become endangered is the latent tragedy of Collective’s amassed traumata, evoked in the whistleblower’s lament that “we’re no longer human.” The chilling takeaway is that such moral decay is hardly endemic to Romania; indeed, it is a prominent feature of global capitalism in the 21st century.

Intercut footage of one survivor’s recovery grounds the film in a corporeal context. Tedy Ursuleanu, a 29-year-old architect who suffered burns on 45 percent of her body, is the subject of a photographic series of portraits created for charity. The images reflect a transfiguration in which her wounds are embraced as an expressive feature of her identity, an embodiment of the capacity for healing. She’s seen working with physical therapists in the use of a prosthetic mechanical hand, her first grasp enough to bring her watching mother to tears (“The emotional force of the hand,” she jokes). An eventual meeting between Ursuleanu and Voiculescu occasions one of the few personal attempts at redress, but no matter Voiculescu’s sympathetic attempt to act as a voice of official contrition to the dignified survivor Ursuleanu (whose image hangs symbolically in his office), it soon becomes clear that words cannot bridge the divide that this scandal has revealed. “The way a state functions can crush people sometimes…You all got the full blow…of a dysfunctional state, its corruption and its health system,” he labours, before inveighing more directly: “It’s profoundly corrupt. They don’t give a fuck about anything out there,” trailing off in English as if imparting universal condemnation.

As elections approach, the minister’s anti-corruption measures are pitted against a rise in populist rhetoric, and his refusal to accredit politically pressured local hospitals is spun as a betrayal of nationalism. In spite of Voiculescu’s efforts, politics as usual—i.e., the reigning Social Democratic Party—prevail, and thus Collective winds up skewing closer to the negative capability of the Romanian New Wave than triumphalist Hollywood journalism narratives. In the absence of justice served, there are no heroics to celebrate; all that remains is grief. Late in the film, Nanau grants a view of one family mourning at the grave of their son, a 19-year-old who survived the blaze but succumbed to the criminal negligence of his medical transfer. It’s an instance of the precarity of any nominally “observational” cinema, a scene of unprecedented intimacy afforded at the expense of privacy. Still, Nanau’s manifest good faith means that a father’s tears are not in vain.

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