Collective: what the acclaimed documentary reveals about Romania today

Collective: what the acclaimed documentary reveals about Romania today
Image: still from Collective (2020)

15 February 2021

On 30 October 2015, 27 young people were killed during a fire at the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest. A further 37 died in the weeks that followed; another 180 people were injured. The tragedy made it clear to millions of Romanians that the country’s wide scale corruption was not an abstract issue, but a danger to human life. The nightclub had had no fire exits, but inspectors had been paid to turn a blind eye.

Launched five years after the tragedy, Alexandru Nanau’s film Collective deals with the aftermath of the fire. Shortlisted for the Oscars in two categories, nominated as the Best Foreign Film by the Critics’ Awards, featuring on Barack Obama’s list of favourite films of 2020, and widely covered by international media, the film has touched international audiences for its insights into the power of governments over our lives (and deaths), and the ongoing processes of keeping politicians and businesses accountable.

Suspenseful and intense, the documentary tells a compelling story. After the tragic fire, the government reassured an increasingly angry public that hospitals were able to contain the crisis. But investigative journalists from newspaper Gazeta Sporturilor discovered that the 37 deaths following the fire had been caused by the mass use of ineffective disinfectant that had been diluted with water. The scheme was traced back to pharmaceutical company Hexi Pharma, who had managed to get a state commission providing all Romanian hospitals with the fake disinfectant. The findings led to mass protests and a change of government — an example of the progress Romanian civil society made in recent decades, with investigative journalism, and civic activism able to keep governments accountable.

Filmed five years ago, the documentary focuses on two protagonists trying to find out the truth about the country’s healthcare system: investigative journalist Catalin Tolontan, and Romania’s new minister of health, Vlad Voiculescu. In 2015-16, the two were not quite part of the establishment: one a sports magazine editor, and the other a political newcomer with a former career in finance and healthcare activism.

The film gives viewers unprecedented access into the press room of the tenacious investigative journalists, and the country’s more chaotic Ministry of Health. The camera follows the two teams as they try to find out what truly happened in the hospitals. The insider’s perspective into Voiculescu’s work generated local criticism of the film, with some accusing the documentary of being too politically biased in his favour. Yet although the minister declares in the movie that his job is to “ask questions”, he seems to slightly fail at giving answers by the end of it. In 2021, judiciary trials are ongoing but no one has yet been convicted. On the fifth anniversary of the fire, the former Prime-Minister Victor Orban said in an interview that “there are many people who do not want for the investigations to be finalised.” While the Romanian state seems not to have changed much since the tragedy, one survivor of the fire, Mihai Gercea, commented, “We all changed as a society. We are more attentive to what the authorities are doing.”

The arrival of Covid-19, however, has proven that there is still a long and painful path ahead. “The pandemic came as a baptism of fire, and those who were meant to prevent certain things, like they were meant to do in 2015, have not done their job, and were once again surprised,” he added. Romania has registered 763,294 official cases of Covid-19 infections, and 19,445 deaths. Meanwhile, more than one of 20 million Romanians have been vaccinated.

In the same time period, chronic underfunding saw three fires break in three different Romanian hospitals in November, December, and in January, killing 21 people. The number is comparable to the 30 Romanian soldiers killed in wars throughout the last 30 years, Tolontan remarked in an op-ed on 29 January for Libertatea, one of Romania’s biggest newspapers. He joined the publication as editorial coordinator following the Hexi Pharma investigations, helping transform the paper from a tabloid into a more serious paper.

Yet, despite the ongoing pandemic, rather than seeing more funds being pumped into the public health system, the 2021 budget has suffered 11 per cent cuts, compared to 2020 — in total, this represents about 5.5 per cent of the gross domestic product, a smaller percentage of the GDP than the eight to 12 per cent that western European countries spend on healthcare. The Ministry of Health, led once again by Voiculescu after a four-year break, and following parliamentary elections in December, has not justified the cut.

Beyond chronic under-funding, the issue with Romania’s degrading healthcare system today is incompetence, rather than just corruption, Tolontan has said in various interviews he gave in the past few years. If Romania’s civil society has matured, and the country can boast quite a few strong investigative journalistic teams, the government and the judiciary still have a long way to go in order to deliver their share of the work for justice too. Until then, as the documentary shows, the only solution is to keep fighting to make the state serve its citizens, rather than killing them.

Watch the film online on the BFI Player or on Amazon Prime.

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