|Director Alexander Nanau|
|Cătălin Tolontan (center), with Mirela Neag and Răzvan Lutac|
COLLECTIVE (Colectiv) A Romania Luxembourg Germany (109 mi) 2019 d: Alexander Nanau
One of the best documentaries in recent memory, offering a profound level of insight and raw emotion, a sadly tragic yet groundbreaking portrait exposing a corrupt Romanian political regime, where the nation’s health system is not run by professionals, but Mafioso types who bribe their way into positions of power, then steal the nation blind, setting up millions in offshore accounts and enriching themselves at the expense of unsuspecting patients who suffer dire catastrophic consequences as a result. Recalling the theater of the absurd elements of Cristi Puiu’s legendary The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005), a scathing indictment of the indifference of the antiquated health care system and the film that put the searing realism of Romanian cinema on the map, bringing in Romania’s preeminent editor Dana Brunescu, who edited Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (4 luni, 3 saptamâni si 2 zile) (2007), arguably the most impactful film of the Romanian New Wave, yet this is the first Romanian film nominated for an Academy Award, receiving bids in two categories, best foreign language and best documentary feature film. This may be the definitive investigative journalism film ever made, meticulously detailed, something along the lines of Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight (2015), but much better, a film that packs a punch, acutely relevant, offering a dramatic sense of urgency, yet also suspenseful, where the tightly edited interweaving style captures events behind the scenes in preparation for press conferences that unleash a series of bombshells exposing massive corruption that literally rocks the nation, revealing the insidious ways an entrenched bureaucratic system places profits over patients. Yet an indifferent public fails to be moved, preferring more lies from the long-established political party already knee deep in corruption rather than hearing the truth, though for many the back and forth in the media of accusations and counter-accusations only kept them confused, where the truth was not evident at the time, making films like this all the more significant, as they clarify what’s needed in order to make a more intelligent assessment. It’s a stunning revelation, shot in a cinéma vérité style by the director himself, all triggered by a single event in October 2015 captured live on cell phone footage, bringing to light the pandemonium following the outbreak of a fire at Colectiv, a tiny Bucharest nightclub without a fire exit, where four members of the metal band playing died in the fire, only their lead singer Andrei Găluț survived, with some actually trampled to death, 27 dying at the scene, while more than 200 others suffered severe burn injuries. In the following months, nearly 40 more (all young people), who suffered far less serious burns than others who survived, died inexplicably in the hospital, learning afterwards that it was from severe bacterial infections developed while in the hospital. Playing out like a 1970’s paranoia-filled conspiracy film, the director slowly unravels the truth by following a small investigative team led by Cătălin Tolontan, the editor-in-chief of the Gazeta Sporturilor (aka: Sports Gazette), a publication known for investigating sports doping scandals, also exposing the corruption of two sports ministers who subsequently served jail time, aided by journalists Mirela Neag and Răzvan Lutac, as they find an explosive story in the aftermath of the tragedy. With the director obtaining full access, we are privy to their reporting, learning what they learn at the moment they do, while also following them to press conferences with state officials who deny there’s a problem. Thousands marched in protest against the government, the first time since the 1989 revolution that so many people took to the street (The 1989 Romanian Revolution and the Fall of Ceausescu), which caught the eye of the director, leading to the resignation of Prime Minister Victor Ponta from the Social Democratic Party (remnants of the former Communist Party) just a month afterwards, setting the scene for a scandal of epic proportions and an extensive Watergate-like exposé of the government itself. While the film itself is confined to Romania, it’s easy to see ramifications elsewhere, as there are parallels, for instance, in Trump’s bungled handling of the Covid pandemic, as needless lives were lost by the criminal negligence of a callous administration whose brazen indifference was staggering, presiding over a government where lining their pockets was their sole concern, arguably the most corrupt administration in our nation’s history, where holding onto power is all that matters, resorting to outright lies to cover up their own incompetence, with a sizeable portion of the population all too willing to believe, buying into the lie that the election was stolen. If the Trump presidency has taught us anything, it is that without investigative journalism, there would be no democracy.
When we meet Tolontan and his team, they’re ready to publish a story revealing the disinfectant products mandated for use in sanitizing 2000 operating rooms at 350 hospitals across the country have been watered down and diluted, bought on the cheap to save money, where their own lab testing finds the contents are significantly less than what’s stated on the label, suggesting hospital utensils are never thoroughly sterilized, leaving them subject to rampant bacterial infections, revealing the government never adequately investigated the supplier or his defective products, following a trail to Hexi Pharma and its owner, Dan Condrea, with bags of disinfectant seen leaving the back door of the factory. Condrea is immediately questioned by a police criminal investigation unit, but released, dying in a car crash under mysterious circumstances shortly afterwards in an apparent suicide and/or mob hit, while the Minister of Health, Patriciu Achimaș-Cadariu, orders his own investigation into the so-called tainted products. After a brief period of time, Achimaș-Cadariu releases his findings, declaring all outside labs as suspect and unreliable, that only an official government lab had the legal authority, finding that the disinfection solutions were proven to be effective 95% of the time, dismissing the evidence provided by Tolontan. Yet more protests ensue, as Tolontan publishes reports that the hospital management refused to sign off the transfer of burn patients to hospitals in Austria or Germany until it was too late, trying to maintain the illusion of competence, unwilling to spend the money to fly them out of the country, confirming that the intelligence service had known for years that bacterial infections were killing people but did nothing, which forces the Minister of Health to resign, replaced by a young new temporary replacement, Vlad Voiculescu, a nonpartisan, former patient’s rights activist who is given a year to sort it all out before the next elections, a daunting prospect, to say the least, promising more open transparency in getting to the root of the problem. The film shifts from Tolontan and his team to Voiculescu, barely in his 30’s, a reformer with wit, intelligence, and a quiet demeanor, who opens himself up to the cameras for thorough scrutiny, seen moving behind the scenes in his office, where the aims of both government and newspaper investigations converge in a desperate attempt to find immediate solutions for a broken system. But it won’t die easily, with Voiculescu frustrated at every turn, as politicians are connected to the hiring of hospital managers, none of whom appear qualified, yet they are granted legal authorization to run hospitals they know nothing about, described as “a nest of unscrupulous mobsters” siphoning off money for themselves, making it all about money and greed, the patients be damned. So entrenched in their positions, like little fiefdoms of power, they are isolated and given political protection, literally burrowed into the bureaucracy and hidden from public view, making it extremely hard to investigate a government built upon a series of kickbacks, as administrators, doctors, pharmaceutical companies, and government officials are all on the take, confronting one obstacle after another in trying to get rid of them, as the Social Democratic Party was dismantling the judiciary system in an attempt to legalize corruption and stay in power. Undermining the investigations at every turn, transparency does not sit well with Romanian politicians, calling the journalists alarmists and agitators with fake news, creating a national hysteria that may have driven Condrea to suicide, instead espousing nationalist views, led by Bucharest mayor Gabiela Firea, saying Romanians should not rely upon medical services abroad, as it’s cheaper to provide medical care here at home, sabotaging the credibility of the accusations and rising death toll, insisting hospitals meet their own safety standards, relying upon their own government experts, basically lying to the public in the face of the coming storm, refusing to give ground.
Among the most remarkable aspects of the film is its attention to the burn victims, who were treated horrifically, often doubling up in the same beds, an inexcusable practice, showing no regard for sanitation standards, which are particularly acute with burn victims, as they are so suspect to infections. One of the burn victims is Tedy Ursuleanu, becoming the heart and soul of the film, introduced with the haunting music of Beth Hart - Caught Out In The Rain - YouTube (7:13), offering a staggering commentary on death, “If I die I don’t care, I’m in love, I’m in love, I’m in love with this man.” With much of her head and body scarred from the fire, she had to have her fingers amputated, fitted for a prosthetic hand, yet she is often seen at political events, showing her face in public, remaining a positive force for victim’s rights, openly posing for a photographer, willingly exposing her skin and body, where the enlarged photographs line an upscale art gallery, representing a symbol for change. Voiculescu is proud to meet her, placing her portrait in his office, an ever-present reminder of what drives his work, insisting upon providing structural changes that will prevent a similar event from occurring. Every whistleblower that comes forward is a woman, as men are simply too ingrained into a system rooted in the past, and none of the reform measures would have happened without the bold actions of these women. Dr. Camelia Roiu is a female whistleblower from a major hospital, one of the doctors on staff, providing the most hideous video imaginable, as maggots are crawling around the rotting flesh of a heavily bandaged burn victim, suggesting their wounds have not been cleaned and sanitized, dying shortly afterwards. It’s impossible to watch that footage and not be moved, with Voiculescu recoiling in disgust at what he sees, knowing the staff are complicit in the death by simply not doing their jobs, showing utter indifference to the special needs of the patients. Anyplace else, that hospital would have been shut down, with the managerial team fired on the spot, but not in Romania, where political clout not only allows this sort of thing to happen, but to persist afterwards, with the hospital refuting all charges of corruption, literally using the lives of citizens as guinea pigs to experiment with, a ghastly plan under any circumstances, yet due to the increasing distrust with the hospitals, and the burn unit’s susceptibility to infection, all the burn patients are sent out of the country for treatment, becoming ping pong balls in the political debate, where outside of this young reformer, few in government really have the best interests of Romanian citizens in mind, as they are traditionally feeding at the trough of rampant corruption, which has infested the government. According to AP newswire reports (In Romania, hospitals are as scary as the coronavirus - The ...), Romania spends less on health care than any other EU member-state, has the highest mortality rate from treatable diseases and one of the bloc’s lowest life expectancies. The government has built only one new hospital in three decades, revealing a bleak outlook, as the Social Democratic Party status quo is constantly reinforced at each election cycle, with young people sitting out the vote. The film ends, appropriately, at a cemetery visitation, as we see Narcis Hogea along with his wife and daughter driving to the cemetery to visit his son’s gravesite, where they meet with the grandparents, lighting candles, bringing flowers, while offering a symbolic drink to the deceased. Alex Hogea (age 19) died less than a month after the incident in a hospital in Vienna, suffering from infected burn wounds following a delayed transfer from Romania that probably cost him his life. He was a university student in Bucharest whose life was abruptly cut short. On their way home, afterwards, in a poignant moment, the music on the radio reminds them of him, The Alternate Routes- Nothing More (Official Video) YouTube (3:23), “We are how we treat each other when the day is done,” becoming an anthem for all that was lost.