Two elements central to the story of director Alexander Nanau’s Collective, the Romanian documentary that’s been on a gradual global breakthrough since its debut at the Venice Film Festival in September 2019, might need a touch of elaboration for American audiences. One is the notion of a daily sports newspaper – something that might seem of strictly niche interest in the modern U.S. media landscape, but which is a mainstay of many national European media landscapes. The second element is the notion of a government willing not only to cede power when it’s demanded of it but even when those demands arise following a midterm scandal.

In the case of Collective, the scandal is two-fold. First, that which brought down the Romanian government at the time, was a tragedy at Club Colectiv in Bucharest. Inadequate fire safety measures led to the swift spread of an initially minor blaze that ought to have been easily containable, but killed 26 people. Ensuing investigations revealed the corruption that led to the unsafe conditions; mass protests led to the resignation of the Romanian government and the appointment of technocrats in their vacant positions.

Nanau’s film focuses on the second part of the scandal, one that would prove to test those technocrats to their limit. In addition to those who died on the scene at Club Colectiv, 38 more would die in hospital, many as a direct result of rampant bacterial spread. It was tragedy compounding tragedy, shaming an already scarred nation. And of all the media outlets, it was a daily sports paper whose dogged reporting laid bare the full extent of the issues behind the unsanitary and ultimately deadly conditions.

Collective’s first half largely follows the team at Gazeta Sporturilor, Romania’s most-read daily sports paper, as they conduct their investigations. Their wearied discovering of seemingly bottomless corruption, the remarkable courage of their whistle-blowers, the audacious compassion of the Romanian people in insisting that the whole truth be laid bare – all make for a gripping experience, one in which it appears there’s no shortage of sickening revelations yet to arise. Led by Catalin Tolontan, then editor-in-chief of the paper, journalists most accustomed to covering local sports fixtures place the dignity of their fellow Romanian citizens at the center of their professional practice. Nanau resorts to none of the quasi-deifying character exaltations typical of some similar docs, hardly bothering to even introduce his subjects. It’s their work that warrants our attention and it’s their work that receives it.

The second half of the film shifts the perspective as Vlad Voiculescu is appointed the new Minister for Health and permits Nanau’s crew unrestricted access to the political processes through which he must now wade. Voiculescu himself is certainly not in search of flattery – he allows the filmmakers to document these problematic processes in all their detail, affording an unprecedentedly transparent observation of Romanian bureaucracy. As documentary cinema, Collective is engaging and important. Voiculescu is evidently not accountable for the political failings that caused these scandalous tragedies, though the extent to which Nanau permits him to evade the kind of scrutiny he’s entirely willing to chronicle in the efforts of the Gazeta Sporturilor journalists is mildly troubling.

If Collective isn’t exactly ground-breaking cinema, it’s because it really shouldn’t be. Nanau is following in the reliable footsteps of documentarians before him whose noble purpose it was to calmly, objectively expose the realities of extraordinary events. He’s not seeking to impose on his film an artistic slant that might compromise the integrity of the message he’s making, which is that the work these journalists accomplishes is far more significant than anything he could ever achieve. It’s both telling and just that the most astonishing moments in the film – and they truly are astonishing – are pieces of footage not captured by Nanau: the traumatizing, gut-wrenching Colectiv incident itself and a clip of clandestine video from a Romanian hospital, where a burns patient lies unattended with maggots squirming across his charred skin. It’s an unforgettable moment in an unforgettable film.

A necessary, even noble film about necessary, noble work, this isn’t the most original documentary ever made but its subject matter is so important you won’t mind.
70 %
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