Romanian paean to investigative journalism, Collective, is year's best documentary

Burn victim Tedy Ursuleanu - Magnolia Pictures
Magnolia Pictures
Burn victim Tedy Ursuleanu
Alexander Nanau's Collective, a riveting documentary about the aftermath of a fire at a rock club in Bucharest, Romania, is the best documentary I've seen in 2020. With intimate access to both a team of journalists who expose a multi-tiered scandal and an idealistic young health minister who arrives to reform a corrupt system, the film is both a taut investigative procedural and a devastating commentary on global politics in the 21st century.  

A pre-credit sequence shows footage from the fateful metal concert at the Colectiv Club on Oct 30, 2015. The cell phone footage is no less horrifying for being grainy. The band's vocalist takes note of something on fire overhead, and the handheld camera captures flames as they explode across the ceiling, igniting the acoustic foam. More than 25 people died in the blaze.

But the scandal happened afterwards, when an additional 37 people died at Bucharest hospitals. Editor Catalin Tolonton and his colleagues Mirela Neag and Razvan Lutac are contacted by anonymous sources and medical doctors within Bucharest's burn unit, who inform them that the victims died not from their burns — which in many cases were minor — but from bacterial infections, which were caused, in part, by diluted disinfectants. 

The journalists' ensuing investigation uncovers a massive scandal. The disinfectants are the tip of an iceberg of corruption and bribes laying waste to all levels of the Romanian government, and certainly the ministry of health. Their reporting, filmed without the interruption of talking heads, dramatizations or graphics, plays out in simulated real time. And it's every bit as heart-pounding as the procedural aspects of All the President's Men or Spotlight.

The intrepid work of Tolonton and his team is heightened not only by the fact that they work for a sports daily but by the dangers they face reporting in Eastern Europe. Independent journalists have been assassinated there in recent years for exposing corruption. 

In the Romanian reporters, there is not the performative nature of adversarial reporting you sometimes see in the United States. Tolontan's aggressive lines of inquiry at press conferences are guided by a belief that he articulates in the film: Journalistic investigations might not have specific policy goals themselves; the professional aim should be to inform the public about the powerful forces shaping their lives. 

Much of the film's second half focuses on the work of health minister Vlad Voiculescu and his painstaking efforts to increase transparency and safety within Romania's hospitals. He is up against powerful forces, as well, including a hyper-partisan media environment that should be familiar to citizens in the United States. 

Collective documents the entire sordid scandal, and the unexpected political ramifications, with economy and power. The film is now available streaming on Amazon Prime. As the credits roll, you'll probably feel inspired by the work of investigative reporters and equally distraught by the state of the world. 

This article first appeared in Cleveland Scene, an affiliated publication.

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