When fire erupted at the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest, Romania in 2015, the blaze killed 26 people on the spot. But the worst, in many respects, was yet to come.
One after another, survivors dispatched to hospital burn units began to succumb to infection, driving up the toll over a period of months to 38 more dead. Alexander Nanau’s documentary Collective, nominated this week for a Film Independent Spirit Award, reveals how investigative reporters helped expose the truth about why so many lives were lost in the fire’s aftermath.
“There was one whistleblower, a doctor that had the courage to open up to journalists about the real reasons for the death of the burn victims in Romanian hospitals,” Nanau explains. “From one thing to another, that led to a journalist being able to uncover massive corruption that led up to the highest levels of government.”
That one journalist, Cătălin Tolontan, worked for—of all things—a sports newspaper. But he had experience investigating corruption in Romanian soccer clubs, reportage that brought down several government ministers. Plus, reporters at more traditional news outlets had whiffed on the Colectiv story.
“The majority of the press failed to uncover the manipulation of the authorities,” the director notes. “[Tolontan] stepped in, in a way, and started to investigate the health care system.”
The documentary unfolds with mounting suspense as Tolontan and several colleagues at Sports Gazette get wind of gross misconduct by health care officials and a company that supplied disinfectant to hospitals. The reporters uncover evidence that sanitizer, secretly diluted by the supplier in a money-making scheme, allowed fatal bacteria to flourish in the burn units.
Nanau says it wasn’t easy convincing Tolontan and his team to allow him access as their investigation took off.
“Because they understood that there’s a lot more to [the scandal],” Nanau recalls, “first they thought maybe I just want to infiltrate their newsroom.”
Tolontan became reassured, Nanau says, when he realized the filmmakers, too, were digging into the story.
“[Him] seeing that we also got some sources and that we were really gaining a lot of information and that our intention is very serious about it, he gained confidence,” Nanau says. “He called me one day and said, ‘Okay, we might try to let you film some of our work. Let’s see how much. We are onto something—I can’t tell you what. We don’t know if we are on the right track or if it will be nothing in the end.’”
It turned out they were on the right track, and their reporting eventually established that hospital administrators and government overseers had been in on the disinfectant scam, pocketing bribes from the supplier. The revelations caused a public outcry and forced the minister of health to resign.
Nanau and his team kept on the story, embedding with a reform-minded advocate for patients, Vlad Voiculescu, who took over as the new health minister.
“[Vlad] took this big risk upon him to let himself be filmed,” Nanau comments, “because you put yourself in the hands of a filmmaker that can do anything with the footage, and for that I respect him very much, for having this courage to do this.”
Nanau and the health minister negotiated ground rules for filming.
“We had this deal that, ‘I’m going to film. You should never tell me in front of all the other people inside the ministry to stop the camera because otherwise they might get inspired that there’s a chance for them to get me out of the ministry,’” Nanau remembers. “We agreed that if people come in [to see him] I would ask them if they wanted to be filmed and if they agreed, it’s fine, and if they don’t agree for sure we respect it.”
Meanwhile, Nanau kept filming at Sports Gazette, which continued to break news on the Colectiv scandal with the help of whistleblowers.
“We had to respect that the whistleblower [is] the most sacred thing for journalists,” Nanau observes. “So they would tell us, ‘Tonight the whistleblowers will come in. You have five minutes with them. If they agree to be filmed you can stay. If they don’t, please leave.’”
The director persuaded a number of those key sources to appear in his documentary.
“We were lucky,” Nanau says, “and had basically an understanding with them that, ‘We’re going to film this, but once we edit the film—which can happen in one, two or three years from now, because we don’t know how long this will take—we will watch again the scenes with you and at that moment in time you can decide if you want to disclose your identity in the film.’”
It may come as a welcome surprise to American journalists, who have spent the past four years being called “the enemy of the people” by the president, to see journalists and journalism celebrated as it is in Collective. At one point in the film, protesters demonstrating against government corruption express their admiration for the Sports Gazette crusader, shouting over and over, “Tolontan! Tolontan!”
Collective has been chosen by Romania as its official Oscar candidate for Best International Film. It has won numerous awards from film critics’ groups and film festivals around the world, including Zurich, DocAviv, the Montclair Film Festival and Hamptons International Film Festival.
Nanau tells Deadline he’s gratified by the way audiences, in the U.S. and elsewhere, have responded to the film.
“It’s for sure a joy the way it connects with so many people…We could feel the same reaction in all different countries,” he observes. “People had the same feeling of having lost the power over their own lives and not being sure if the societies they’re living in are still working in the service of their lives…We can only watch it and in a way be happy that people get inspired by the film and it helps them reflect on their own societies.”
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