As its sobering prologue explains, Alexander Nanau’s amazing new documentary Collective centers on a horrific tragedy that occured in Romania in 2015. During a concert at a Bucharest nightclub called Collectiv, a fire broke out that killed 27 people and injured another 180. The cause of the fatalities was later determined to be the lack of fire exits. When the death toll continues to rise at the hospital up to 4 months later, however, it becomes clear that the problem was even more serious than building code violations.
Indeed, while the immediate fatalities are the source of much grief in the film’s opening moments (including harrowing footage of the raging fire and its frantic victims), it is the revelation of dangerously unsanitary hospital conditions that points to astonishing levels of corruption. As “Collective” follows the investigation, the fire is revealed to be just the tip of the iceberg. Through the efforts of a team of determined journalists seeking to uncover the truth, a jaw-dropping real-life political thriller thus unfolds.
To fully divulge all of the subsequent revelations would rob Collective of some of its storytelling power. Indeed, Nanau lays out this trail of corruption in remarkable, engaging detail. From the curious fact that it took a sports newspaper to expose the scandal, to more grave concerns of disinfectants diluted up to 10 times more than the recommended concentration, every surprising new twist is a mindblowing bombshell.
As the film dives deep into the sordid underbelly of the Romanian upper class, Nanau puts a face to the various characters involved on either side of the investigation. Most notably, journalist Catalin Tolontan emerges as a true hero in his determination to get to the bottom of the national crisis. Nanau zooms in to showcase Tolontan’s passion to get answers through several press conferences and newsroom research, as well as the dismay of himself and his colleagues upon their realization of the insidious nature of the corruption.
Similarly, the perspective of the newly installed Minister of Health – following the resignation of the disgraced government – offers a fascinating look at the uphill battle to fix a system that is rotten to the core (quite literally, in the case of maggots found in patients who were neglected). Through these characters we are reminded of the importance of a free press and the power of democracy. But perhaps more critically, it also cautions us to remain vigilant about journalistic factions and electorates which may not have society’s best interests at heart.
With its riveting criminal investigation, provocative political intrigue and unforgettable heroes and villains, there’s a perverse thrill to watching the shocking events of Collective play out. But Nanau never loses sight of the devastating human cost of corruption. Smartly, the film is bookended by scenes of grief-stricken loved ones of the late victims. As we gaze upon their sorrowful faces, Collective ultimately resonates as a plea for us to look out for our fellow man, whether we are an elected official or an average working class citizen.