' ' Cinema Romantico: Collective

Monday, April 19, 2021


Alexander Nanau’s documentary “Collective” begins with simple white type over black, providing the pertinent, petrifying details of the 2015 nightclub fire in Bucharest that killed 27 people, injured 180, and eventually left 37 more burn victims languishing in hospitals dead. Director Alexander Nanau shows us the smartphone video of that event a little later, smartly opting not to utilize the footage as a cold open by reasoning it would have been too much to bear. As awful as it is, though, it is not even the overriding point of “Collective”, merely the stomach-churning genesis of a jaw-dropping investigation into a Romanian healthcare system that is so corrupt and negligent it caused the Social Democratic government in charged to resign en masse, allowing the Technocrats to step in. That investigation is spurred by Cătălin Tolontan, reporter at The Sports Gazette, who is seen asking families of the victims if they, too, were fed Government lies that the injured were being nursed back to health. They were not, as Tolontan and his small team uncovers through diligent reporting and a number of sources and whistleblowers, discovering that not only were the hospital’s disinfectants being diluted so severely as to render them negligible, but that the entire healthcare system was run on bribes. If this underlines – nay, highlights – the importance of a free press that does not hold the public’s hand in moments of crises, it also demonstrates how media is not enough to patch holes in the system. That’s why midway through, “Collective” hands its narrative off to the new Minister of Health, Vlad Voiculescu. If at first he suggests another in a parade of feckless bureaucrats, his insistent presence gradually comes to demonstrate that society cannot simply change from public pressure and protest; it demands systemic follow through. 

Nanau entirely eschews talking head interviews, opting for a fly on the wall approach, remaining nearly as minimalist as the plain white walls of The Sports Gazette’s offices. This decision, to recount the story through the people uncovering facts and hacking through red tape, both implicitly evokes that idea that talking heads, like politicians or their spokesmen issuing boilerplate statements, are evasive and full of it and emits a distinct real-time sensation, as if we are turning up the truth right alongside them. And those truths are brutal. There is a kind of black humor here that occasionally resemble the so-called Romanian New Wave, like “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” (2005) in which a man’s journey through the country’s healthcare system is less a journey toward the light than the dark. Of course, a movie like that might have wrung considerable humor from the idea that a sports newspaper, of all things, would be the one breaking such hard news whereas here, in “Collective”, like so much else, it is merely stark fact. Indeed, there is a truth is stranger (worse?) than fiction element to “Collective” when compared to the New Wave, as if those movies could not possibly envision such a woebegone structure, so at odds with the medical procession’s ostensible humanist goals, painting it as so entrenched in its for profit unscrupulousness that Vlad actually asks aloud if change is really even possible.

That is a fatalistic analysis, speaking to how grim the experience of watching “Collective” can be, though sucking it up and taking it is, frankly, part of the point. In one scene, Tolontan sits for a kind of debate TV show where even the moderator pushes back against the reporter, admonishing him for causing public fear, which sounds utterly ludicrous given the story is about medical facilities literally killing Romanians. Throughout “Collective”, Nanau returns to Tedy Ursuleanu, a survivor of the nightclub fire, though her head and body were significantly burned, her fingers amputated. If her transforming into an activist of healthcare patient rights is one of the documentaries few rays of hope, it ensures such hope is measured against reality. Indeed, Ursuleanu models for a series of paintings, putting her injuries, her pain, on full display. At the exhibit’s opening, Nanau lingers over a woman looking at one of the paintings, a necessary reminder that one can’t just make it all go away.

The only time, in fact, when you catch Nanau truly imprinting a point-of-view on his images is when he tilts down from one of Tedy’s paintings hung from the health ministry wall to the table where Vlad is conducting a meeting. Then again, this also implies that Vlad, having met Tedy, has specifically chosen to hang this painting as a reminder of what he’s working toward. And Vlad gets as close as anyone conceivably could to reform, essentially gutting the Romanian medical system in an effort to build it back up. This means, however, that some medical procedures, like lung transplants, must be exported to other countries actually equipped to perform it. The Social Democratic opposition, then, seizes on this, by pitching an age-old argument of xenophobia, claiming this as an example of outsourcing jobs to foreigners, even though Vlad’s decisions are saving Romanian lives. Nanau films Vlad watching these attacks on television, his reactions of high-pitched laughter evoking not so much someone laughing to keep from crying as genuine amusement at the bald-faced bad faith. His intentions are noble, but he’s no idealist, conscious of what he’s up against, and “Collective” ends with the Technocrats being voted out of office. 

Vlad takes it in stride, but in a conversation over speakerphone, his father does not, lambasting people who vote for their own worse interests. He sounds like someone shouting into the void. 

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