PRINT May/June 2020



Alexander Nanau, Colectiv (Collective), 2019, 2K video, color, sound, 109 minutes. Tedy Ursuleanu.

IF YOU EVER GET SICK IN ROMANIA, hightail it to Vienna. That was my immediate takeaway, near the end of January—almost to the day that the first Covid-19 case was diagnosed in the United States—from Alexander Nanau’s Collective (2019), a chilling investigative documentary about the endemic, engulfing corruption inside Romania’s health system. Anyone who has seen Cristi Puiu’s true-story-based narrative The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005)—a foundational title of the New Romanian Cinema that follows a dying old man as he’s rejected by hospital after hospital—has already gotten an eyeful of what passes for emergency medicine in Bucharest. But as a Romanian physician said of Puiu’s movie, it’s even worse if you stick around. Collective gives us a glimpse of the top—the gangster hospital managers and the government functionaries who appointed them, all helping themselves to taxpayer money while providing care that kills. (When the lump of suet in the White House said he heard that face masks were going out the back door of one New York hospital, his muddled mind must have transposed the practices of his mobbed-up role models in former Soviet republics to his hometown.)

In 2015, a fire in the popular Collectiv nightclub in Romania’s capital killed twenty-seven people and injured roughly 180, of whom thirty-seven died in hospital over the next four months from what had not seemed like life-threatening injuries. Cătălin Tolontan, the implacable editor of the Bucharest daily Gazeta Sporturilor, began to look into the situation in the hospital alongside his small team of reporters. They discovered from multiple sources how the disinfectant used throughout the country’s hospital system had been diluted to the point of being useless, and how the scam by the supplier, Hexi Pharma, and its owner, Dan Condrea, had been common knowledge for years within hospitals, the government, and the state security forces. Public outrage forced the resignation of the center-left Social Democrat government. With the next election a year away, an acting government of nonpartisan technocrats was temporarily installed to clean up the mess.

Nanau began shooting just before Gazeta Sporturilor broke the story. He and Tolontan are two of a kind in their belief that so long as independent journalism can speak truth to power, all is not lost. An observational documentarian, Nanau shot for fourteen months and then spent a year and a half editing the copious footage. Collective is an investigative documentary in that Nanau follows two investigators, first Tolontan and his staffers and then Vlad Voiculescu, a patients’-rights advocate who was appointed minister of health for the interim government. What is most extraordinary about the film is that Nanau reconstructs this multivalent drama without resorting to talking heads or explanatory voice-overs. A brief series of opening intertitles sets the scene, and that’s it. Next, we’re watching a community meeting where grieving parents are telling their stories, and where journalists, including Tolontan, are asking questions. Nanau does not make his camera a character. We might remain unaware of its presence until we consider (as I’m sure documentarians will) the complex negotiations seemingly required to allow Nanau to be present when Tolontan or Voiculescu speak with sources whose identities must be protected. It’s not all talk. Nanau is in the back seat of the car when reporters track Condrea to the Hexi Pharma distribution center, and he’s there when they photograph the totaled sedan in which Condrea died. That death is officially ruled a suicide, but according to his ex-wife, that wasn’t in his nature.

Collective gives us a glimpse of the top—the gangster hospital managers and the government functionaries who appointed them, all helping themselves to taxpayer money while providing care that kills.

Flesh-and-blood human beings and the threats to their health and welfare are the subject of the film. Nanau is extremely discreet in his use of horrifying imagery, but a minute-long sequence of cellphone videos by people trapped inside the blazing Collectiv, and a glimpse of a hospitalized victim, his wound crawling with maggots, are necessary. The third protagonist, Tedy Ursuleanu, lost a hand and sustained burns to most of her body. Her scarified beauty becomes the symbol of resilience and resistance—qualities prized by Voiculescu, who believes that transparency is necessary for change, and thus also welcomes Nanau’s probing lens. But the young health minister has barely begun his reforms when the Social Democrats gear up for the 2016 election. On the state television network, visually and strategically a Fox clone, Voiculescu is vilified as anti-Romanian for insisting that patients be transferred abroad for organ transplants because local doctors remain ill-equipped to perform them safely. Younger voters sit out the election; the Social Democrats win in a landslide. Tolontan and his reporters receive phone calls from people who threaten their families’ lives. Worried that his son has no future in Romania, Voiculescu’s father suggests that he move to Vienna.

When I spoke to Nanau, he said that, as with the US and Trumpism, the 2019 midterm showed some movement away from the Social Democratic Party—a reason for guarded optimism. He chose to end Collective’s narrative in 2016 and let the audience speculate about what it would take to make change happen. It was the end of January when we spoke, and I don’t think either of us was thinking about Covid-19. 

Amy Taubin is a Contributing Editor of Artforum.