“Collective,” a new documentary from Romania, has to be one of the most interesting and surprising films of 2020. Yes, the idea of a documentary might not sound especially exciting, but it won raves at the Sundance Film Festival, where it made its U.S. premiere.
The film follows a team of journalists who crack open a scandal inside their nation’s health system.
“Collective” begins with a fire at a Bucharest nightclub, Colectiv, where 27 people died. But most of the movie deals with what happened to the surviving fire victims, who begin to die of the burn injuries at a high rate in the country’s hospitals.
The culprit, as you’ll discover, is greed. A disinfectant used to care for the burn wounds, turns out to have been diluted 10 times, making it practically worthless for patients who are at a high risk or infection. There’s actually footage of maggots in one patient’s wounds.
But the most remarkable feature of the film is the access granted to the documentary’s director, Alexander Nanau.
He approached the journalists early on and gained their trust, following them as the uncovered the money trail and as they interviewed various folks who were complicit in the crime. The director also has access to interviews where hospital whistleblowers tell their dirty secrets to the journalists.
Then, in a rather remarkable twist, the director gets access to a newly appointed head of the health ministry who has replaced the previous minister after a scandal involving the mysterious death of the owner of Hexi Pharma, the manufacturer of the disinfectant.
The leader of the journalism team is Catalin Tolontan, who works for the Sports Gazette in Bucharest. Although the publication focuses on sports, it’s know for its investigative journalism in Romania.
In an interview for press materials for the movie, the director says that Tolontan is known for his investigations and that he previously investigated “two ministers of sport who were corrupt.”
“His findings brought them down and they went to prison,” Nanau says. “So he was a prominent figure even before (the fire). Once he was on the case, it didn’t bode well for the politician he was going after.”