Documentary Review: Romania grapples with a tragedy that exposes “Collective” guilt and responsibility

One can’t watch the Romanian documentary “Collective (Colectiv)” without feeling as if the film is a snapshot of America’s future.

A kleptocracy run amok, corruption spreading up and down the bureaucratic ladder, a tragedy that exposes a rotten system overwhelmed and caught with its pants down.

And a leader stands before the press and vows (in Romanian, with English subtitles) that “the first thing to do to regain trust is to stop lying.”

For Romania, that came after a fire in a Bucharest night club without a fire suppression system and with too few (unmarked) exits killed 27. The Colectiv club blaze injured 180 others, and at one point we see the moment it started and the chaos that followed during a speed metal concert there. It is horrific cell-phone footage.

But the real horror came days later. Another 37 people died, some with survivable burn wounds, but treated in hospitals run on bribes and cost-cutting, so filled with infection that they could boast “the most deplorable sanitary conditions in Europe.”

Patients were so poorly cared for that they got maggots in their wounds.

It took a newspaper with “sports” as its primary readership, Sports Gazette, and several intrepid reporters to blow up this scandal, which ranged from bribed managers running the hospitals to a firm — Hexi Pharma — and its offshore financed chief, which watered down disinfectants, and even IODINE, in what lead reporter Catalin Tolontan described as “an experiment,” with every hospital patient in the country a guinea pig to see just how bad things could get before the deaths became public and outrage exploded.

Plainly the briber-in-chief could have implicated hundreds of not jus no jt hack hospital managers, but an entrenched, corrupt government that looked the other way. His “suicide” has a Jeffrey Epstein convenience about it.

Nanau’s film follows three main threads — Tolontan and colleague Mirela Neag digging and pushing the widening scandal story forward, forcing resignations along the way, young burn victim Tedy Ursuleanu‘s recovery (acquiring an artificial hand, modeling as the face of the tragedy) and in the offices and press conferences of Vlad Voisculescu, the “patients’ advocate” lobbyist brought in with a wave of “technocrats” to clean up a government proven to be just as corrupt as the dictatorship it replaced decades ago.

Vlad is the new Minister of Health, the one who promises to “stop lying.” We watch his uphill fight against pass-the-buck underlings, a combative press and a public easily swayed by Big Promises for the political party responsible for the state of affairs, pretending none of it is their fauly.

We see defiant bureaucrats insisting “all needs are being met” by a plainly inadequate system, doctors as whistleblowers and the dogged pursuit of chemical tests on the watered-down products the hospitals were further watering down so the local fat cats in charge could spend the savings on mansions, Porsches and vacations.

The allegations flying around back in 2016-17 have a whiff of Trumpism about them — incompetence, self-dealing, murderous callousness. The reporters flirt with using the word “murder” to describe the criminal intent of those paid off to let things get this bad.

And there’s deja vu in watching Tolontan deal with Romanian TV, which eagerly follows his team’s reporting each night, but which cannot resist from shooting at the messenger when he appears on their talk shows, losing the thread and forgetting the real victims here.

Nanau doesn’t. His film may drift deep into journalistic arcana for long stretches, but he never forgets to come back to Tedy, or the families of survivors (Minister Vlad meets with them), or the shocking tragedy that inspired all this.

Even if his fellow countrymen are just as easily distracted by politicians who shrug off every Sandy Hook, Parkland, Vegas or Orlando/Pulse. The people they voted for created this mess. Not holding them accountable makes them just as culpable.

MPAA Rating: unrated, traumatic fire footage and burn wound imagery

Cast: Catalin Tolontan, Tedy Ursuleanu, Mirela Neag and Vlad Voiculescu

Credits: Directed by Alexander Nanau, script by Alexander Nanau, Antoaneta Opris. A Magnolia release.

Running time: 1:49

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