Documentary Review: ‘Collective’

Greetings again from the darkness. You likely recall seeing the horrific video. It was 2015 when a fire swept through a Bucharest club where a band was performing live. Captured on a cell phone, the video shows the crowd desperately trying to escape through the main door. 27 people died that night and more than 100 others suffered injuries and burns. It was a terrible tragedy, and yet more tragedy unfolded over the next few weeks, and that’s the beginning of the story told here by director Alexander Nanau.

As recovering patients filled the burn wards and Intensive Care Units at Romania’s hospitals, something horrible began to happen. 37 more people died. These were not folks that were admitted with a life-threatening status, instead it was bacterial infections that were responsible. What is the one thing we take for granted at hospitals? Yes, cleanliness. As the media began to question this death spree, Romania’s Health Minister, Nicolae Banicioiu, a Social Democrat, began boasting about the country’s medical facilities. It’s at this same time that Catalin Tolontan, the editor of “Sports Gazette”, was investigating the cause of these deaths. What we witness is investigative journalism at its best … in the midst of despicable actions by those people we should be able to trust.

Mr. Tolontan and his team slowly peel back the layers, and discover massive fraud and corruption. A whistleblower leads the reporters down a trail towards Hexi Pharma and its owner, Dan Condrea. Protests and social upheaval follow, as the current politicians continue to spew lies. When tests prove unsterile hospitals due to diluted disinfectants, and that patients were denied or delayed transfers to proper facilities in Vienna or Germany due to pride and greed, outrage ensues … leading to the ouster of Banicioiu and others.

Former patients’ rights activist Vlad Voiculescu is named temporary Health Minister, and he permits total transparency by allowing director Nanau unfettered access to meetings and phone calls. The camera follows as reforms are instituted and Tolontan’s research continues. It’s stated with deep regret that, “Our healthcare system is rotten”, and “We doctors are no longer human life. We only care about money.” As more corruption and deception is uncovered, it’s clear this was all about money, rather than healthcare.

Nanau’s film would be powerful and memorable and important if he had remained focused on the work by the new Health Minister and the journalists, but it’s elevated to brilliance by his inclusion of pieces on burn victims, especially Tedy Ursuleanu. Her severe burns left her head scarred and took one of her hands, yet she refused to cower or hide … choosing instead to be photographed for all to see. It’s such an affecting segment, and one that our mind won’t soon forget.

This is the rare documentary that also works as a political thriller. Rather than talking heads and a stream of interviews, we are invited into the world of journalists and reformists looking to right the wrongs. It’s tense and emotional, and the outrage felt at the end is quite unpleasant and will stick with you. Those behind the corruption are described as “a nest of unscrupulous mobsters”, and we can’t help but wonder what happened to medical ethics and human morals. We witness these stories as they unfold and there may not be a better tribute to the importance of investigative journalism.

In theaters and On Demand November 20, 2020

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