When Romanian filmmaker Alexander Nanau (“Toto and Her Sisters”) screened his latest observational documentary “Collective” to rave reviews at the Venice, Toronto and Sundance festivals, he had no idea that his health system exposé would prove to be all-too predictive of a world not prepared to cope with a rampaging virus pandemic. As the virus moved rapidly through China, Europe and the Americas, leaving thousands of victims in its wake, Nanau watched with horror as the terrible patterns revealed in Romania repeated over and over again.
Nanau’s movie, funded by HBO Europe, follows a team of crack investigative journalists at sports daily Gazeta Sporturilor, who uncover the reasons why 37 burn victims died after a traumatic fire killed 27 people and injured another 180 on October 30, 2015 at the Bucharest nightclub Colectiv. Gazeta Sporturilor reporter Catalin Tolontan, the movie’s hero, stands up to the Romanian government and its incompetent health ministers by showing incontrovertible proof of just how much they lied to the public, at the cost of countless lives. “Collective” digs deep into the systemic corruption and greed that infects the entire country, which is now, like the rest of the planet, immersed in fighting COVID-19.
Nanau called from his home in Bucharest, where he has been in isolation for more than two weeks. As he figured out which characters to follow for this documentary, he was drawn to Tolontan, who “started to uncover the lies and manipulations of the authorities after the fire,” Nanau said. “That’s when we saw that an investigative journalist was the best way to experience the relationship between citizens and power.”
At first, Tolontan refused all access. But a week later he changed his mind. “He thought maybe it would be worth it to him and team, so that this generation can have access to how the press works,” said Nanau. “Before too long, he started to uncover this vortex of revelations and corruption.”
Nanau refuses to interview anyone on his films. His working philosophy, also on “Toto and His Sisters,” is to follow an unfolding story in real time, he said, “because I want to experience something and learn from the life experience I go through with the characters.” He was in post-production, sifting through his material and archival footage for just the right moments in this narrative, for over 18 months.
The process has given him some insight into questions that are all too common these days. Why do so many governments lie to their people? “It’s hard to say why it’s an endemic thing worldwide,” he said. “When we started filming, the first minister of health was part of a technocrat government who were supposed to be professionals but were still part of a system that was not able to communicate in a frank way. As we can see worldwide, they were preoccupied with launching a parallel reality. It’s always about, ‘how can we sell them another reality while we are doing what we want to do?'”
As the journalists in “Collective” uncovered the Romanian system and its chain of corruption, they revealed an extraordinary lack of concern for human life. “It’s hard to say where that lack of humanity started,” said Nanau. “For 10 years, Hexi Pharma was diluting disinfectants and bribing epidemiologists and hospital managers. Too many people were involved in it, covering it up all the time.”
As he was finishing the film, Nanau saw alarming parallels in other countries, from the U.S. to Austria and Brazil. “Politicians exchanged professional people with incompetent people to serve them, and the result was death,” he said. “You can see now worldwide in the handling of the coronavirus crisis, in the countries with populist politicians like Brazil and the States, politicians will replace professionals in key positions with incompetent people who will serve you forever, who will support your corruption all the way. Once a crisis hits, the whole system doesn’t work anymore.”
This year, China tried to hide information about the early outbreak of the virus in Wuhan, and in the U.S., Donald Trump downplayed the virus threat despite his own early pandemic warnings in January, while touting an untested malaria drug. “We saw the same behavior in China,” said Nanau, “completely parallel with the States. It means shutting down the information coming from professionals. It’s the same thing with President Trump: ‘This medicine will be the right one.'”
The health system broke down again in Romania, said Nanau. “They said, ‘We don’t have infections.’ We have the worst infections! It’s a lie, they pushed back with professional manipulated information. Once the mess was there, they acted like they will rescue them and at the last moment flew them all out. Then infected patients died in hospitals in other countries, because Romanian authorities erased the information in all the patient files of who was infected. As long as we have greedy, corrupt people in key positions, they don’t care about the health of society, just the next opportunity to make money.”
Like everywhere else, Romania doesn’t have enough tests and medical staff do not have effective protective gear. “A lot of medical staff are already infected,” he said. “As during ‘Collective,’ they don’t care inside the hospitals. They have no regulations of how to handle patients who might be infected. Already in many hospitals they have infected other patients by moving one or two patients around. It’s a disaster.”
Quality of information is what all countries need in a health crisis. Needless to say, Tolantan is on the case, building investigative teams to cover different sides of the crisis. “They are the strongest and most feared investigative journalists,” said Nanau. “We need the system around us to work during a fire or epidemic. It can happen in no time: you become dependent on the community you are living in. If it’s unable to save your life, that’s it.”
After the movie opened in Romania on February 28, it played for two weeks until cinemas were closed. “The night we opened, we were in 40 cities at same the time,” said Nanau. “When people came out of the screening, they heard the news that a woman health minister was arrested while accepting a bribe.”
Magnolia Pictures and Participant Media planning to open the film stateside on May 22. Nanau wasn’t so sure. “We will see if they hold the date or not,” he said.
Watch an exclusive clip from “Collective” below: