There’s no letup in the staggering documentary “Collective,” no moment when you can take an easy breath, assured that the terrible things you’ve been watching onscreen are finally over. The story begins with a tragedy in Romania that consumed the country and toppled the government. The villains and heroes involved — the bureaucrats and doctors, journalists and politicians — seem too much like Hollywood types to be true. But the story and its outrages are real, from the venal pharmaceutical company owner to the whistle-blowers who had all the receipts.
The original tragedy started the night of Oct. 30, 2015. A metal band, Goodbye to Gravity, was performing in a popular Bucharest club called Colectiv when somebody set off some pyrotechnics. Cellphone video shot that night shows just how fast the fire spread after sparks hit the club’s soundproofing material. Flames engulfed the ceiling, and smoke filled the club, which was in the basement of an old factory and had no fire exits. The immediate death toll was 27, with many more injured. Four months after the fire, the death toll had risen to 64. Among the many anguished questions: Why were victims with seemingly manageable injuries dying?
The director Alexander Nanau began looking for answers that November, the same month in which Romania was convulsed by mass protests that pinned the fire on government corruption. The prime minister resigned, and a new government of technocrats was put in place for a one-year term. Nanau zips through all this background information seamlessly, creating a coherent picture of the political stakes. Smartly, he enlisted the help of a survivor, Mihai Grecea, who introduced Nanau to other victims. These included Tedy Ursuleanu, a young architect who was so badly injured that when she woke from a coma, she found her fingers had been amputated.
Nanau’s focus and attention to detail are evident on the screen, as are his remarkable access and instincts. Early in “Collective,” during a news conference, the camera cuts to an unassuming man with short, wispy hair who’s standing next to a colleague, a skeptical-looking tall woman. “The authorities lied to us,” he says. The man is Catalin Tolontan, the editor in chief of the daily newspaper Gazeta Sporturilor, who immediately becomes one of the movie’s principals. He’s a natural, with an open face, a serious mien and an unaffected informality. Soon, Nanau is tagging alongside Tolontan and his hard-charging cohort, including that tall woman, Mirela Neag.
Nanau has embraced a rigorous observational approach in “Collective.” He served as his own cameraman — he has a sharp eye — and was one of the editors. There’s some explanatory text at the beginning, but no talking-head interviews, onscreen IDs or other standard prompts. Instead, the story is largely conveyed through conversations and TV news reports playing on monitors. The absence of narrative wayfinding aides helps streamline the documentary and adds to its whooshing momentum. It’s engrossing, but every so often you may find yourself wondering about the time frame and squinting at the tiny dates on cellphones and newspapers.
Whatever questions you have, though, are eclipsed by the bombshells that keep exploding. (Even so, I would have liked to know how a sports newspaper that usually features soccer teams in its headlines cultivated such an astonishing investigative team.) Sometimes Tolontan and his reporters chase down leads, complete with surveillance stakeouts and telephoto lenses; at other times, the scoops walk through the front door. Nanau is in the room with the journalists when they discuss the stunning revelation that partly explains why so many survivors continued to die: Disinfectants were being heavily diluted before even reaching hospitals.
The shocks kept coming. There were bribes, an offshore bank account and a fatal crash. About midway through the movie, the health minister steps down and is replaced by Vlad Voiculescu. A former patients’ rights advocate in his early 30s, Voiculescu has an empathetic smile that fades as the extent of the crisis becomes clear. He too gives Nanau extraordinary access, and he also offers one of the few references to Romania’s totalitarian past. That history rears up again as Voiculescu’s reforms are met with resistance, including from populists who put a self-serving, nationalist spin on critiques of the country’s catastrophic health care system.
Some documentaries reassure you that the world is better when they’re over (inequity has been exposed); others insist it could be better (call the number in the credits to see how). “Collective” offers no such palliatives. Instead, it sketches out an honest, affecting, somewhat old-fashioned utopian example of what it takes to make the world better, or at least a little less awful. The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice. But as “Collective” lays out with anguished detail and a profound, moving sense of decency, it takes stubborn, angry people — journalists, politicians, artists, activists — to hammer at that arc until it starts bending, maybe, in the right direction.
Not rated, but be aware that the movie has some horrific imagery. In Romanian and English, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 49 minutes. In theaters and available to rent or buy on iTunes, Google Play and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators.
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