Collective – interesting story/boring movie

B- Documentary
Directed by Alexander Nanau

My press release calls this Romanian film a “docu-thriller.” It’s certainly a documentary, but it’s not very thrilling. You won’t be sitting at the edge of your seat. It’s difficult to care about the protagonists because we never really know anything about them except for their work. Catalin Tolontan, the leader of this band of investigating reporters, is a hero in Romania. But he’s not photogenic.

In 2015, a Bucharest nightclub called Colectiv (not a spelling error) caught fire during a crowded rock concert. The building lacked emergency exits, and 27 people died immediately. Far more were seriously injured. But that was only the start of the scandal.

In the weeks afterwards, a surprisingly high number of survivors died in the hospital. Tolontan and his assistants set out to find out why. They discovered a flood of corruption throughout the national health service. Disinfectants were watered down. The owner of a major medical company died under mysterious circumstances. Issues went all the way to the country’s parliament.

And here’s an odd thing: Tolontan and his team worked for a sports magazine. That’s never explained why in the documentary. Perhaps, decades after the end of Romanian Communism, real journalism was still in the cradle.

This is an important story worth telling, but the documentary often fails to keep your interest. Most of the film contains scenes of people interviewing other people, all in very calm voices – in Romanian with English subtitles. I couldn’t help thinking about how much more effective if it could have been as a drama based on actual events…something like Spotlight.

The best scenes don’t even involve Tolontan and his team. These are the moments focusing on the survivors and those who lost love ones. A father wants to know why his son died. A squirm-inducing video of maggots in a patient’s ear. Most of all, there is Mariana Oprea, a very courageous young woman who was severely burned in the fire. She lost fingers. Her body is badly scared. She doesn’t hide it. She even models for a photographer and puts her photos in a gallery. Filmmaker Alexander Nanau should have focused more on her.

I can easily imagine an American right-winger using this documentary to show us the evils of universal healthcare. But if you look deeper, you’ll find more. Everyone compares Romanian healthcare not with America’s commercially-built mess but with Germany’s much better medical system. And the film shows clearly how a working democracy can force the government to fix a bad situation. If this had happened in the USA, the government would only provide “thoughts and prayers.”

Collective will probably open in theaters and on demand Friday, November 20 – unless something will change.

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