From Rosalind Russell’s command of the screen in His Girl Friday to the biting tensions of Spotlight, journalism has long captured the imagination of movie goers with a romanticized idea of the profession. However, cinema has seldom properly recognized the real heroes behind the stories, the people who actually do the work to keep our governments in check and our society honest.
In COLLECTIVE, director Alexander Nanau puts us in the room with real journalists as they break their story piece by piece. The Romanian entry for the Best International Feature at next year’s 93rd Academy Awards, this documentary is as thrilling a narrative as any that has been shown on screen, and one that reflects so many of our current situations and distrusts in America.
The story begins on October 30 2015 at the Colectiv club in Bucharest, where a metal band is performing when a small fire in the ceiling quickly ignites the entire structure in a matter of seconds. 27 people are killed on site and of the 180 injured, 37 die within four months from infections acquired while in the care of their doctors.
Outraged over the corruption and lack of measures taken to prevent such a tragedy, Romanians take to the streets in protest, forcing the entire Social Democratic government to resign. A new politically independent government of technocrats steps in with a one-year mandate to right the previous wrongs and steady the course until general elections can be held.
All of this is described in just the first two minutes of the film, which then takes us through the subsequent investigations by the Gazeta Sporturilor (a daily sports journal of all things) whose editor-in-chief Catalin Tolontan becomes the first subject of the film. Throughout COLLECTIVE , director Nanau pastes himself to the wall of various press conferences and meetings to allow the story to present itself in the most honest way possible. He discards the typical genre conventions and allows the case to unfold and explode, letting you entirely forget that you’re even watching a documentary.
Tolontan’s research uncovers diluted disinfectant being supplied to hospitals by Hexi Pharma, a company whose director is in on the deception, leading to a greater plea for government oversight that exposes a monstrous ladder of corruption and bribery. The stakes ultimately hit the highest level as officials shake off any evidence of wrongdoing and further tragic events strike, leading to public theories of mafia involvement.
And still, our real-life heroes persist to uncover the truth, arming their fellow Romanians with the knowledge to stand up against their oppressors. As Tolontan puts it, his job as a journalist is to provide people with “more knowledge about the powers that shape their lives.” In this particularly turbulent year for truth and journalism in the United States, the narrative Nanau has captured urges a respect for a written artform that today can be easily dismissed and decried with the simple label of “fake news”.
But what is it all worth if nothing changes? Nanau then shifts COLLECTIVE’s focus to interim Minister of Health Vlad Voiculescu, who aims to rehabilitate the cracking system and line the infrastructure with qualified, apolitical managers. Seems like an obvious solution, if there weren’t already doctors in place who earned their positions through bribery and corruption, and there wasn’t an upcoming election that could reelect the very powers that were once in place.
At this point, late in the third act, with an election at stake, we would typically expect the documentary to let us celebrate everyone’s efforts with a deserved victory. But if you don’t remember from the news, I’ll spoil it for you now: the Social Democratic government is reelected by a landslide and it appears that nothing will change. Nanau then presents us with what I consider the most emotional moment of the film. We see Vlad Voiculescu speaking with his father on the phone, unable to control his anger, “It’s like we’re living in separate worlds!” and urging his father, “Move back to Vienna! I’m serious!” From Vlad’s word, we can safely assume that this fight is far from over for him.
In COLLECTIVE, Nanau gives us a film that is both desperate to find hope and an assurance that it can be found even in tragedy, from those who have the courage and moral efficacy to remain standing. Whether it be Voiculescu’s resilience to keep fighting, Tolontan’s mission for the truth, a model willing to display the impact of the Coletiv fire on her body to the public, or a deceased victim’s family singing one of his favorite songs on their way home from the cemetery: “We are peace, we are war. We are how we treat each other and nothing more. And tell me what it is that you see, a world that’s full of endless possibilities, and heroes don’t look like they used to.” At which the deceased’s father points to the sky: “They look like you do”.
COLLECTIVE may not be as uplifting as some of our other Virtual Movie Palace offerings, such as The Fight which took on a similar David v. Goliath theme, but it is perhaps the best film to watch this month as we reflect on what this year has given us and how we proceed into the next. There is hope and resiliency in these despairing times—and many are out there fighting for it.
Stay safe and have a great week! Hope to see you at our It’s a Wonderful Life Cocktail Cinema Watch Party this Sunday at 5:00 PM.