REVIEW: Collective (2020 – Documentary)

‘Collective,’ Still Image — Photo: HBO Europe / HBO Nordic.

Directed by Alexander Nanau — Seen on HBO Nordic.

It was inevitable that during this global coronavirus pandemic we would all start to think more about the state of our countries’ health systems and hospitals. During both the first and second wave of the pandemic, there has been a lot of talk about how many patients each hospital can take in, and so on and so forth. I thought about all of this as I watched the incredible and infuriating Romanian documentary Collective, which is an exposé of widespread corruption in Romania and a health system that, as one whistleblower puts it, has lost its humanity.

Alexander Nanau’s documentary, Collective, revolves around the unveiling of corruption and fraud in the wake of a national tragedy. In October 2015 during a concert at the nightclub ‘Colectiv,’ a fire broke out and killed 27 people and injured 180 people. In the next months, an additional 37 victims died as a result of negligible medical care and diluted disinfectants. The documentary primarily follows a group of journalists from a Romanian sports newspaper led by Cătălin Tolontan. Tolontan became the public face of the press’s resistance to the national government as he did his job and asked the right questions. In the documentary, we see Tolontan defend his behavior on national television and meet with whistleblowers.

Eventually, the fresh-faced Vlad Voiculescu takes over as the minister of health and proclaims that he wants his work to be open and transparent. At this point, Nanau’s film starts to change as he gets to sit in on meetings with Voiculescu, who grows increasingly discouraged by how corrupt and morally bankrupt the entire system is. Throughout the documentary, we also meet with victims of the Colectiv-fire, including Tedy Ursuleanu, who we see reinvent her life.

I think that the most incredible thing about Alexander Nanau’s latest documentary is the access that he got. It is absolutely amazing that you actually get to witness whistleblower meetings with both the government and the independent press. Although this is a film about a vigilant independent press, I think this eye-opening film is absolutely at its best when it showcases just how difficult it is for Voiculescu to make real change in Romania.

I really do like that this is more of an observational documentary that doesn’t stop to interview its subjects or includes talking heads. It doesn’t feel like Nanau stepped in and interfered much, if at all. However, although the film is absolutely shattering from start to finish, I do think that its observational fly-on-the-wall approach makes it sometimes feel slightly dry and inaccessible. However, once the film introduces you to Vlad Voiculescu I think that the film’s shift in focus makes it become incredibly engrossing.

Collective is a devastating and infuriating observational documentary that I have thought a lot about ever since I first saw it a couple of days ago. Although it is, at times, difficult to watch, Alexander Nanau’s latest documentary is a thought-provoking film that tells an important story about the importance of a free and independent press in the face of an alarmingly corrupt government and health system. I also think that it is arguably the best documentary of 2020.

9 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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