After being branded as “the enemy of the people” in recent years, both here and in some other countries, journalists may be surprised to find themselves portrayed as heroes in a number of recent documentaries, including an Oscar-contending film.
Collective, the Romanian film nominated for Best Documentary Feature and Best International Film, centers in large part on reporter Catalin Tolontan, who exposed a shocking corruption scandal precipitated by a deadly fire at a Bucharest nightclub. Tolontan and his colleagues got to the bottom of why burn victims kept mysteriously dying in Romanian hospitals in the weeks and months after the blaze.
“These journalists,” notes director Alexander Nanau, “were the only ones who started to investigate all the lies and the manipulation within the health care system and the political class.”
Tolontan’s investigation uncovered a scheme by a pharmaceutical company to sell secretly diluted disinfectant to hospitals. The weakened cleaning solution allowed bacteria to flourish that then killed the burn patients. Hospital officials and government overseers were in on the scam, collecting bribes from the disinfectant maker.
“The minister of health that tried to cover up and to protect the company that diluted its disinfectants was taken down by the investigation,” Nanau points out. “Massive corruption led up to the highest levels of government.”
Collective, from Magnolia Pictures, highlights the vital role of the fourth estate in upholding democratic institutions and safeguarding rights, a mission that inevitably puts it in conflict with the powerful. But abandoning that mission comes with grave consequences. As Tolontan puts it in the film, “When the press bows down to authorities, the authorities will mistreat the citizens.”
Crusading journalists played a leading role in more than just Collective in the past year. The Netflix documentary Athlete A was built around the work of reporters at the Indianapolis Star who uncovered the sexual abuse scandal in the USA Gymnastics program. Maria Ressa, the Filipino-American journalist who has clashed with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, is the heroine of A Thousand Cuts. Ressa was convicted of cyber libel last year in a case many observers perceived as resulting from Duterte’s openly expressed contempt for her.
Jamal Khashoggi, the U.S.-based Saudi journalist, paid the ultimate price for pursuing his work that was critical of the Saudi government. Two documentaries in 2020, Kingdom of Silence and The Dissident, investigated his assassination in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul Turkey in 2018, an act allegedly orchestrated by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
“Freedom of press and freedom of journalism and freedom of speech is what Jamal was advocating and fighting for,” The Dissident director Bryan Fogel told Deadline in January. “We’ve seen over the last four years in our own country an assault on press freedom, assault on journalism…And this is dangerous.”
Khashoggi wrote for the Washington Post. Tolontan is remarkable because he works for a sports newspaper, not the kind of publication one might imagine spearheading an investigation into a government corruption scandal. But he says it was actually an advantage writing for Sports Gazette, because readers perceived it as approaching political stories without partisan bias. And, as he explained in an interview at AFI Fest last fall, Tolontan insists on maintaining standards worthy of the finest journalistic entities.
“Our job is to put reality first, to seek the truth,” he told AFI Fest. “This is our main duty, to discover the facts.”
It was that adherence to high standards that made Tolontan reluctant, initially, to allow the director of Collective into his offices.
“I was narrow-minded at first,” Tolontan confessed, “because a newsroom is almost like a lock for everybody…It’s like a border between church and state. You can’t go into a newsroom in this way and to have access to our sources. ‘Ohmygod, this is impossible,” this was our first reaction.”
He changed his mind after deciding young people in Romania, who don’t necessarily get news from “mainstream” sources, should see what a traditional journalistic operation looks like. Plus, he was impressed by the investigative work Collective’s director was simultaneously doing on the burn victim story.
“[Tolontan] seeing that we also got some sources of our own and that we were really gaining a lot of information and that our intention is very serious about it, he gained confidence,” Nanau recalls. “He called me one day and said, ‘Okay, we might try to let you film some of our work. Let’s see how much.’”
The success of Collective has served as a boon to investigative journalism in Romania, Nanau observes.
“The number of whistleblowers exploded once we [released] the film,” Nanau tells Deadline. “It went up almost by 10 times per day with journalists, that people would come in with scoops and valid leads towards corruption and injustice.”
The Oscar nominations for Collective are not just an individual honor for Nanau and producer Bianca Oana, the director says.
“It’s really a win for the independent, investigative journalists and the whistleblowers that are guardians of society,” Nanau comments. “In our film you can really see that they can have an impact, a positive impact on society and Romania really changed since this press investigation…We live now in a Romanian society where press investigations are really a threat for corrupt and incompetent authorities.”
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