Wow! Just, wow! This documentary from Romania is an edge of your seat political thriller that kept reminding me of Spotlight. It’s a story of corruption and fraud that resulted in thousands of deaths and the intrepid journalists who exposed it. And it all began in 2015 with a tragic fire at a nightclub in Bucharest named Colectiv. 27 people died in the fire, but then victims in hospitals who should have recovered began to die of bacterial infections. People took to the streets to demand answers, and a team of reporters at the Sports Gazette began investigating. It led them to a company that was selling over-diluted disinfectants to hospitals all over the country. And to massive corruption in the Ministry of Health and the entire healthcare system of Romania from top to bottom.
At the helm of the investigation is intrepid editor-in-chief Catalin Tolontan. Though the paper is known for sports reporting, Tolontan has a background in investigative reporting and he’s a dog with a bone over this one. He has his people stake out the owner of the company that is selling the bad disinfectant. He also stakes out the manager of one of the biggest hospitals who’s clearly on the take. Early on in the story the Minister of Health resigns after mass protests. His job is filled by a Vlad Voiculescu, formerly a patient advocate but also someone who at the age of 27 founded the “cytostatic network”, a group that smuggled cancer medicine from Austria, Germany and Hungary into Romania for patients who had no access to medication. The filmmakers had unfettered access to him and his deliberations, and despite the revelations, he can’t change what’s going on because the bureaucracy is so entrenched. And in the middle of it all, the man whose company manufactured the disinfectant dies in a crash. (Suicide or murder, who knows?)
There is a side story woven through the film of a young woman who survived the fire, though she lost her fingers and was badly burned. She uses art as a way through her trauma, sitting for a series of photographs that are later shown in an exhibition. And as she talks to reporters, they want her to be the angry victim, but she refuses. She’s an inspiration.
This film works on so many levels. It’s a story that Americans can understand at this moment when we have a government that is playing politics with people’s lives. Plus the two central protagonists are the perfect heroes for this moment, both working for the greater good. And the filmmakers present the story in such a breathless fashion, you can’t look away. I highly recommend this film. It’s one of the best documentaries I’ve seen this year.
[Mainstream Chick’s take: I agree. Collective is not only one of the best documentaries of the year, it’s one of the best films. An observational documentary – and drama – that is Romania’s entry for Best Foreign Film consideration in the 2021 Oscars race. Would Collective feel nearly so relatable and powerful at any other time – like one, two or five years ago? Probably not. But these are the times we’re livin’ in… a collective nightmare. -hb]