Alexander Nanau's Collective plays in London at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, running March 12 - 20, 2020.
Most nonfiction films that aim to inspire change never find a way to edge past audience complicity and help us identify our own participation in regimes of oppression. Collective is a rare exception. Its beginning concerns one Romanian sports newspapers’ investigation into medical fraud after a national tragedy and offers a sly sleight-of-hand by highlighting one scandal, but not the one that eventually consumes the film. Title cards reveal quick background about the 2015 fire at Colectiv, a popular downtown music venue from which the film takes its name, which killed 26 concertgoers. Later, the death toll rose to 64 after hospitalized victims succumbed to infections. The fire inspired nationwide anti-corruption protests that led to the prime minister’s resignation. There’s a sense that reform is possible, and that grassroots anger can be productively channeled—is this the tale that we’re about to watch? What follows appears to confirm the background, moving into a press conference held by victims’ parents about how they were misled by the government. Next is a found footage sequence of the fire as filmed by concertgoers. Its moments of terror are harrowing in a visceral sense, especially contrasted with the audio of politicians’ denying their culpability on TV. In this sequence, the screen is black, forcing us to sit with the ghostly afterimages of the phone videos of the roaring flames inside Colectiv.
But all of this serves only as the prologue, a ferocious bit of establishing action that conveys a sense of chaos as much as information, a destabilization that mirrors for the film’s viewers the traumatic effects of the Colectiv fire that allows rapacious opportunists the chance to profit off of confusion. The bulk of the film concerns the actions of two institutions who are attempting to hold the government accountable and enact reform. Directed, filmed, and co-edited by experienced documentarian Alexander Nanau with longtime producer Bianca Oana, Collective has miraculous access to an expansive cast of subjects. The first group features Catalin Tolontan, Mirela Neag, and Răzvan Lutac, who are investigating why more victims died in the hospital than in the fire itself. They uncover endemic, systemic fraud at a pharmaceutical company (Hexi Pharma) that supplies disinfectants to all of the country’s hospitals. Further, agents of the state flagrantly lie to protect their own entwined interests, endangering many more victims as a result. These scenes are straight out of any investigative crime thriller, fast-paced and infinitely interesting even in its minute details like moderating comments on online posts, creating headlines, a literal stakeout, and discovering undercover video evidence. That the indefatigable journalists work at the Sports Gazette, instead of a more general-interest paper, reveals the sad state of free press not only in Romania but also in other ostensibly democratic countries.
After forcing the resignation of the original minister of health, the film gains access to the inner workings of the state through the new reform-minded minster of health, Vlad Voiculescu, a former patient advocate. There are also whistleblowers from inside Hexi Pharma and the government, as well as a victim, Tedy Ursuleanu, who tries to move on with her life through art. All of these threads meet at some point, in unexpected and moving ways that make visible both the long reach of the government and the political machinations of change-making. I had never seen a film that so clearly, patiently, and thrillingly outlined the stakes at play and the interdependencies of any political economy, communist or not.
Nanau’s accomplished previous features include Toto and His Sisters (2014), which opens with the titular subject’s mother being denied parole for not demonstrating enough penance and desire to change her drug-dealing habits. The bulk of the film focuses on 10 year old Totonel (Toto) and his teenage sisters, Ana (17) and Andreea (14), Roma siblings who have been left in the care of their junkie uncles in a barely habitable Bucharest apartment. The film admirably resists the urge to focus solely on the personalities of this family, though they are each remarkably well-established as characters. Their squalor is combined with their social reality in an astounding frankness; evenings at the apartment are mixed in with visits to the numerous social services provided by the education system, extracurricular hip hop classes, and a children’s shelter that provides some much-needed respite for Andreea and Toto, though Ana stays behind. Here, Nanau’s interest in systems is already evident. Deprived of the satisfaction of an unambiguously happy ending, instead audiences are left with a sense of the unending grind of cyclical poverty.
Like Collective, Toto’s observational approach is intimately recorded by Nanau himself, though he never pretends to be looking with fly-on-the-wall objectivity. Toto is supplemented with self-filmed contributions from Andreea, who turns out to be a true talent with the camera, bolstered by a months-long filming workshop by Nanau to give her the skills for this task. As an early and extraordinarily well-integrated example of the collaborative ethos that has revitalized documentary films worldwide, Toto’s form displays Nanau’s nimbleness as a filmmaker and preternatural ability to adapt the form of his films to the concrete stuff of their reality. In Collective, these preoccupations are expanded to new, ever-larger ambitions. As in other recent Romanian documentaries and the work of the Romanian New Wave, the vestiges of communist control and corruption reign with a dark undercurrent of humor. But it wouldn’t be entirely truthful to place Nanau’s work entirely within this nationalized oeuvre. Born in Romania but raised and trained as a filmmaker in Germany, Nanau masterfully makes a local story relevant for us all.
We spoke with Nanau at the film’s North American premiere, starting the conversation with a short discussion about the particulars of one scene, with Nanau gently correcting my interpretation of who was present.
ALEXANDER NANAU: There wasn’t a journalist at the last scene. But this is not uncommon when discussing this film. It’s like with journalistic films like Spotlight; you have to watch things two or three times until you see everything. It’s the same as All the King’s Men.
NOTEBOOK: But that’s also real life. You’re experiencing things that don’t happen in a neat narrative.
NOTEBOOK: I’m starting this conversation on this exactly—the complexity of your film. You edited for 18 months, longer than the shooting period itself. The final film has an explosive energy and a large cast of subjects. What was the process of finding characters to follow?
NANAU: After the Colectiv fire happened, there were demonstrations. We had people in the streets claiming that corruption kills and demanding a new political elite. They realized that the corruption that comes from top on down after the fall of communism 30 years ago was not only financial; because of corruption, people died. The fire was a national story because everyone saw that it could have been their child. Colectiv was a popular club in the middle of Bucharest. It wasn’t underground. But the club paid bribes so there were no emergency exits.
With the edit, we were thinking about the whole country. Hanka Kastelicová, the head of documentaries at HBO Europe—she’s what Sheila Nevins is like here—asked, together, how could we make a film about it? How could we portray such a need for change in a society? And how could we do it in an observational way, the way that I make films? I didn’t want to use archival footage of the club, or rely on interviews from survivors. I had a research team, and we started to research the different storylines.
NOTEBOOK: When did you start research exactly? Was this after the fire, but before people were learning about the deaths in the hospital?
NANAU: People were already dying of infection in hospitals, but the relationship between the two wasn’t clear yet. So Catalin Tolontan started to investigate on the role of the authorities in the club fire. Then he found out that they are treating burn patients in a burn hospital that was officially open, but it was just a regular hospital [not set up with a burn unit]. Catalin was digging into this—he had a reputation for investigation. He had previously done an investigation within sports and had brought ministers down. Those ministers had to go to prison.
And so we thought let’s try to get close to Catalin and to see if he might accept us to film his investigation. When we first went to him, he was completely against it. But we had several meetings between my team and his team, and he realized that we were ourselves also thoroughly investigating because we knew so much. I told him, listen, I know it’s hard to accept another person being with you for four or five months, especially with a camera. I offered to leave all of our footage there at the Sports Gazette office.
NOTEBOOK: Was that a protection for the whistleblowers?
NANAU: That was a deal with the paper and with the whistleblowers. We all needed to be sure what could or could not be published. We always made it clear that the making of the film would take at least 1 ½ or 2 years, and we said we’d decide after that whether or not it would be safe. So we started filming, and the rollercoaster started while we were there, and then nobody thought about stopping the camera anymore because we all knew we needed to keep filming.
NOTEBOOK: And what about the minister of health, Vlad Voiculescu?
NANAU: We started filming when the prior minister of health was in power. When I started hearing that Vlad might be appointed, I already knew who he was because he was known in the healthcare world. As a private citizen, he had made a network of others who would bring cancer medicine that wasn’t available in Romania into the country. In the summertime he would also bring cancer patients to a camp he started called Magic Home. He knew them because he was also bringing cancer medicine to them.
Once we knew someone like him might be appointed, I tried to get ahold of him. I knew he was the chance to get a glimpse from inside the system. Maybe it was naïve to think that it was possible, but after I got ahold of him and I spoke to him, he decided pretty quickly it was a good idea and agreed to be filmed.
NOTEBOOK: One of the whistleblowers who goes to the Sports Gazette also shows up in Vlad’s office for a meeting, where it’s revealed that they already knew each other. That’s when I realized how serious Vlad was for reform and also the extent of your access, because we’re able to follow a minor character into two very different spaces. How often were you filming?
NANAU: When the ministry was working through amendments, I would be there for weeks. Same with the newsroom, I would film until I thought it was covered. I knew I had to get the case from beginning to end. After the investigation was winding down, I mostly filmed at the ministry but continued to switch back and forth. We just had one view, that everyone should be respected because I had access to both sides of power, to both the press and to the ministry. The deal was that I would never talk in the newsroom about what I saw or heard inside the ministry. And vice versa.
NOTEBOOK: So you would not become an investigator yourself for either side.
NANAU: No, I became a collector. The investigations were done by them.
NOTEBOOK: In the edit, how did you find the form of the film? For instance, the characters include Tedy Ursuleanu, a survivor-turned-artist-activist, and a father whose son died of infection. To me, they serve as the most traditional punctuations of empathy in a film about corruption but your film stays far away from sentimentality. The last scene, for instance, shows the father visiting his son’s grave, but the film ends abruptly in the middle of the with the family listening to a song. In light of what happens, reform appears hopeless.
NANAU: I never saw it as hopeless—to me, it’s more like a sad reality. Whether it’s hopeless or not is in the hands of the viewers. What I try to do with storytelling is to try to get the viewer to understand that they need to ask themselves, “Who am I? What are my decisions about my own life?” So I don’t tell him whether it’s optimistic or pessimistic. The viewer has to find the key of the story himself. I hope that after watching the film, he goes back to the situation and compares the attitude of the characters to his own life and how he would make decisions himself: Would I just look away? Would I have the courage as a whistleblower to point to corruption, risking my job and my life?
NOTEBOOK: Are you trying to implicate the viewer?
NANAU: Yes. The journalists are just a symbol of journalism as it should be. They are professional hunters of information to pass onto readers. It’s not a moral institution. It’s taking the information from one side and giving it to the other side.
NOTEBOOK: There’s a focus on honesty in your film, as opposed to the idea of truth. Tolontan is really dedicated to exposing when people have lied and when they’re saying something they know is false. This is also reflected within the film itself. What were you looking for in filming? The reason why I’m asking this is because at the beginning of your film the journalists’ investigation appears really traditional. They’re digging through stacks of paper and trying to locate information. But Collective really starts gaining momentum with a realization that the journalists can’t do everything by themselves. People on the inside have to help them. The second half of the film focuses a lot more on the whistleblowers.
NANAU: Once I started to understand what was happening, I realized why we were shooting inside the ministry. I realized that this was a rare chance to understand the relationship between those who govern, their citizens, and the role of the press. This was also new for me. I wanted to understand how the press functions; what’s the form of power of the press as opposed to those who have the power to mediate their voice? People tend to believe those in power. I was interested in the mechanism of the press as a servant for society.
NOTEBOOK: Most investigative films tend to reproduce the systems they’re criticizing. For instance, regarding the power of the demagogue—documentaries that critique a conservative or xenophobic leader often do so by focusing on a charismatic leader on the liberal or progressive side. Tolontan and Vlad are charismatic people too, but you never focus on their personalities. Your film instead focuses on the systems and what people are trying to do within them.
NANAU: Because you asked about form, I think it is really important not to get lost in characters. We wanted to understand a network of relationships. To put it very simply, we wanted to understand how society functions. That means the state—or the system, citizens, and the press. These three pillars. If you take away the press, power will always violate the people. It’s also sad that this is in the film. It happens everywhere. It’s human behavior. People in power, no matter how well intended they are—power always corrupts. That’s why the market system is still the best we have, because we can change it. The problem is that we have an information war that is messing with our brains. The image goes from fake news to deepfake news. Those in power can just change faces and the press is the one that can pull off the mask.
NOTEBOOK: Do you consider Collective an activist film?
NANAU: Not at all. It would be an activist film if I was on the street marching. I just want to make people understand how forces govern lives. Activist stories tend to point a finger and to personalize the sides: he’s the good one, he’s the bad one. The very first scene of Collective shows the parents of victims, who think they’re being lied to. And then you see the fire. And then you hear the propaganda, but we never put faces to it. You hear what the parents had just described what they were told. We didn’t show who was saying the propaganda, and only used the sound because it was more important to understand we have to be aware that no matter who is coming up with such strong statements, “we did everything we managed,” “we’re the best,” we have to question them. If we would have put faces to the politicians who said those things, viewers would singularize the experience.
The last scene, to go back to it, we cut off very harshly because viewers were tempted to fall into the emotion. But by cutting it off, we’re saying, step back into reality and see where you’re standing. We have to be aware in every moment that we are the ones to take action, or not.