Collective

****1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Collective
"Although he is dealing specifically with one instance in Romania, it's easy to see evidence of greater global malaise reflected here." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

It's 15 years since Christi Piui's The Death Of Mr Lazarescu shone a light on the everyday tragedies of the Romanian health service and, if Alexander Nanau's latest, damning documentary is anything to go by, not much has changed in the intervening years.

Nanau - whose film is Romania's official Oscar selection and the first documentary it has ever nominated for the honour - opens as a scandal is breaking after a fire at the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest in 2015 claimed the lives of 27 and left 180 injured. It's worth noting that there are harrowing scenes from inside the club on the night of the fire and some later footage from hospital that some may find a very tough watch, although their inclusion is certainly justifiable.

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The fire, however, was just the beginning of a story that saw 37 more people die in the ensuing months, with medics refusing to sign off on the transfer of patients to hospitals in Austria, only the start of a litany of mismanagement and worse. When one man tells a meeting, "A communication error killed my son", it is just the tip of what we learn is an enormous iceberg of failure and corruption.

Nanau hops aboard with the investigative journalists at - of all places - the Sports Gazette, led by Catalin Tolontan. As they begin to look into why so many survivors with what should be survivable injuries are going on to die in hospital, they uncover a horrifying truth about a major disinfectant supplier Hexi Pharma. With people taking to the streets in the country an interim government of "technocrats" is appointed for a year in a bid to bring a fresh broom to Romanian politics. Among them is Vlad Voiculescu, a former patient advocate and finance expert who becomes health minister, who allows Nanau's camera to be a fly on the wall as he tries to get to the bottom of the problems and attempts reforms.

The film flies along at a pace, as we discover facts about a river of corruption flowing through the Romanian healthcare system and government at almost the same point as the journalists and newly appointed minister. Nanau adds further emotional weight as he captures survivor Tedy Ursuleanu, who though badly injured by the fire, is not letting it define her - filming her not in a confined interview setting but as she goes about the business of recovery and activism.

What the journalists and Voiculescu uncover is a web of corruption and greed that highlights the worst aspects of humanity and shows how a system can be poisoned from tip to toe with little regard for the lives it takes on the way. Although he is dealing specifically with one instance in Romania, it's easy to see evidence of greater global malaise reflected here. It's not just in Romania, for instance, where those trying to do the morally courageous thing find themselves on the wrong side of oppositional "populist" news coverage. The consideration of cover-ups and rule flouting might well also put British viewers in mind of our own Grenfell fire tragedy and its aftermath. As we realise Voiculescu's tenure may only be a brief blip on the political landscape, it's also a reminder of just how important a free non-partisan press is when it comes to shining a light on scandal anywhere in the world.

Reviewed on: 17 Nov 2020
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Documentary considering the aftermath of a nightclub fire that exposed deep corruption in the Romanian healthcare system.

Director: Alexander Nanau

Writer: Alexander Nanau, Antoaneta Opris

Year: 2019

Runtime: 109 minutes

Country: Romania


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