‘Collective’ review: A searing exposé of Romania’s healthcare inferno

Note: Spoilers ahead!

It is no surprise that most, if not all, masterful investigative stories often emanate from the strangest of leads, and so is Alexander Nanau’s Oscar-nominated documentary Collective.

On the night of Oct. 30, 2015, a metal band vocalist howls and rocks a song before a tumultuous crowd at Bucharest’s Colectiv nightclub. Everybody is having the night of their life, singing at the top of their lungs, until the ceiling starts to catch fire. This is not part of the act, the vocalist says. Then in split seconds, the entire room is engulfed in flames, sending concertgoers stumbling to their feet and rushing to the nearest doors. But without proper fire exits, the ill-fated event left 27 people dead and 180 others injured.

This nightclub flare-up is reminiscent of the Ozone Disco tragedy, dubbed as the worst fire in Philippine history. So many lives and stories are rendered to ash. And just as Ozone’s memories continue to sear one’s mind, the Colectiv fire burns nonstop as more lives are taken away days after the incident, prompting a group of investigative reporters from a local sports paper to uncover a gross and towering corruption deeply ingrained in Romania’s healthcare system, lending the film its thesis. 

Nanau’s vérité procedural approach allows the narrative to thrive on clear-cut details and forthrightness, trading talking-head interviews for hard-hitting conversations between the principal characters and excessive visual antics, such as superimposed news headlines and stylized editing, for nuanced storytelling the way a good reporter sticks to facts but never lets go of context. Nanau handles this style to such a great degree that the documentarist becomes the investigative journalist himself. 

The director also relies on triangulation to craft a comprehensive picture of Romania’s political climate and social ills as he chronicles Sports Gazette editor in chief Catalin Tolontan and his fellow reporters’ unflinching pursuit of truth and justice; health minister and former patients’ rights defender Vlad Voiculescu’s brave attempt at enacting change amidst the creeping bureaucracy; and the fire survivors’ as well as the bereaved families’ plights as they carry on with their lives, however nebulous it may seem. 

And while Nanau lacks access to the government, it doesn’t hinder him from depicting an equally terrifying portrait of them. This artistic choice mirrors a basic tenet in journalism: to provide the downtrodden more airtime they have long been deprived of than the culpable powers that be. 

Collective makes no attempt to soften the blow of every information it unravels. If anything, the film expands on and threads through it seamlessly, making new discoveries more shocking and gut-wrenching than the ones that precede it. So when Tolontan’s team hits the tip of the iceberg and finds out that the burn patients died of bacterial infection due to ineffective, heavily diluted disinfectants supplied by pharmaceutical company Hexi Pharma to state hospitals, the momentum begins to take shape. The way Nanau follows the reporters as they chase down leads and sources – observing their frustrations and doubts that they may never find what they hope to find – with the growing social unrest and the upcoming elections in the background, also contributes to the film’s tension.

Much of the film’s success hinges on these revelations and the way they are delivered so engrossingly that one would not mind the two-hour runtime. Thus, the bombshells continue to detonate: One learns that behind the baffling rise in the death toll weeks after the Colectiv fire is a sickening corruption that permeates the country’s medical system. Bribery and money laundering among doctors, hospital managers, and politicians are rampant. State-of-the-art facilities and the so-called best medical care the government boasts simply do not exist. So it is understandable to see Voiculescu’s optimism wear off, especially toward the film’s latter half, for how can one enact change from the inside when the system rewards the corrupt, protects the secured, and treats state neglect as the norm? 

Romania’s healthcare system is so broken that even in the presence of damning evidence – irregularities in chemical tests and hospital records, testimonies from whistleblowers, footage documenting how maggots pester a patient’s wound as proof of bacterial infection, and the sudden death of a prime suspect in the investigation – the authorities still choose to look the other way. 

All of these cinematic depictions are reflective of the kinds of governments and leaders we have today. By highlighting that all the events that had transpired do not exist in a vacuum, the documentary offers a meaningful examination of our institutions and how we perceive and trust them. It situates us at the core of larger, bleaker forces that not only influence but control the way our society works.

What’s more frustrating is that everything Collective has sketched out has always been there. Public health, especially in countries ruled by populist dictators and power-hungry officials, has always been marred by corrupt practices that remain unchecked. It is, therefore, not far-fetched to say that Romania’s situation draws parallel connections to that of the Philippines, whose blatant disregard for the people’s rightful access to public healthcare has never been more evident than in the pandemic, especially with a health secretary whose job, above anything else, is to remain loyal to his despicable boss. So when social structures become immune to resistance and rigid to dismantling, what happens then?

This is where investigative journalism steps up, despite the uncertainty of finding the ever-elusive truth. That the most dedicated and tenacious investigation against a government that is keen on stifling dissent is being led by reporters from a sports daily, which often covers soccer games and sports personalities, reveals the current state of press freedom across the world. But even so, Tolontan and his colleagues remain resolute and uphold the principles of the profession they have sworn to defend. This is proof that investigative journalists are indeed rare gems. 

Collective’s ending situates us in the status quo, as though all the relentless efforts made count for nothing. But it means the opposite. It doesn’t cave into the oppressive system that it hopes to dismantle or shed light on. It only admits, with gnawing awareness, that journalism, like anything of cultural value, can only do so much to bring about change. Just as investigative stories unearth systemic injustices and speak truth to power, “documentaries,” as Filipino film critic Nick Deocampo puts it best, “never promise to show a beautiful world. They ask people to understand why it is not.” 

Collective premiered at the Venice Film Festival on Sept. 4, 2019, and was screened in the Philippines for free from April 1-3, 2022, as part of the Dokyu Power Film Festival.

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