Oscars 2021: Romanian documentary Collective studies the multifarious factors at play in shaping a democracy
Collective characterises democracy as a long and slow process of negotiation and compromise involving the incessant interplay of individual will, institutional inertia, and societal moods.
In Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation (2016), a physician tries to have his daughter’s exam scores doctored in exchange for letting a local official bypass the waiting list for a liver transplant. As a loving father, and someone whose own hopes about a new life in post-Revolution Romania was dashed, he wants his child to leave the country for better prospects in Western Europe.
Through this low-key story about the moral conflicts of a middle-class family, the film diagnoses what it sees as grave maladies afflicting contemporary Romania: the comprehensive erosion of public institutions by political mafia and crooked officials, the deep distrust between social classes, the disenchantment of the younger generation with their predecessors, and the concomitant brain drain towards the West.
These thematic undercurrents of Graduation become the very subject matter of Alexander Nanau’s compelling non-fiction work Collective (2019). The film borrows its title from a nightclub in Bucharest that caught fire during a heavy metal concert in October 2015, killing 27 young people. The incident provoked nationwide protests against the ruling Social Democratic (PSD) government, whose shady licensing practices were believed to be at the source of the tragedy. The prime minister resigned, putting in place an interim government of politically unaffiliated technocrats for one year. This, Nanau’s film shows us, did not provide any hint of a solution, as the bottomless corruption of the system continued to take its toll on those who survived the disaster.
More than 30 of the survivors, who suffered relatively minor, less-than-fatal burns, died over the following weeks at the public hospitals they were admitted to. Digging for the truth behind these unexpected deaths, journalist Cătălin Tolontan of The Sports Gazette discovered a series of man-made horrors: the disinfectants used at the hospitals had been dangerously adulterated at the factory, and further diluted by the hospital staff, causing deadly bacteria to infect the patients. More revelations followed: collusion of the factory owner with hospital management, procurement department and policy makers, political appointments of unqualified public officials and licensing of unfit institutions, the death of an important piece of the puzzle that may not be a suicide, bribes, fake invoices, siphoning of healthcare funds, offshoring of black money, the trail of blood seemed endless.
As a counterpoint, and a braking force, to this downward spiral, Collective offers the figure of Vlad Voiculescu, the newly appointed Minister of Health in the interim cabinet. A repatriate from Vienna and an erstwhile patients’ rights activist, he registers as an honest and empathetic official, who recognises the institutional rot for what it is. With his slouched posture, fidgety hands, and expressive gestures, he presents a human, vulnerable face of the ministry. “The state can crush people sometimes”, he confesses in his meeting with Tedy Ursuleanu, one of the survivors of the fire. whose photograph hangs in his office as an emblem of his mission. Nanau’s film intersperses images of Tedy between its coverage of Vlad and Cătălin, constantly reminding us of the object of their pursuit of justice. Tedy has outlived victims with fewer burns, and as an outlier, she indicts the system that has failed others.
What is bracing about Collective is that, amid this despondent description of graft and profiteering, it paints a poignant picture of democracy in action, making us witnesses to the movement of justice: a watchdog media that holds those in power accountable, policy makers who take feedback from media to correct course, and both of them lending their ears to the victims, whose plaint serves as a guide to action. Nanau’s film pits the capacity of a few good men — honest politicians, media personnel, conscientious whistleblowers — to effect systemic changes against a foul political-bureaucratic-mediatic complex that has every interest in snuffing out such efforts.
More pointedly, the film characterises democracy as a long and slow process of negotiation and compromise involving the incessant interplay of individual will, institutional inertia, and societal moods.
There is a resistance at work in every stage of the decision-making process that tempers the forward thrust. The desire to confess to failure on part of the ministry is converted into political doublespeak by its spokespersons to soften the blow to the media, the press’ impulse to go all out against the establishment is kept in check by the adverse impact it could have on the public. What is needed are radical measures, remarks Vlad, but they cannot be made in haste. His campaign to make hospital management more transparent is spun by PSD-backed TV channels into a scandal involving organ transplants.
In other words, Nanau’s film taps into the dialectical processes at play in the functioning of a democracy. The press’ instinct to foster a healthy skepticism towards the government comes up against the ministry’s job of assuring the public that things are fine behind the red tape. Even within the establishment, the health minister’s insistence on telling the truth about the corrupt practices of state actors cannot, however, come at the cost of defacing the state organs these actors represent. Ultimately at stake, suggests Collective, is the push-and-pull between the need for transparent governance and the imperative to nurture the trust of the public in the institutions that shape their lives.
One recent film that Collective most resembles is the American documentary City Hall (2020), Frederick Wiseman’s sprawling four-hour record of the day-to-day operations of the Boston municipal corporation. Like Wiseman’s body of work, Nanau’s film is a fly-on-the-wall account that abstains from directly addressing its audience; there are no talking heads, no on-screen texts, no voiceovers to provide us guideposts as to what is happening. The burden of the signification, and the entire creative effort of the film, instead lies in the way the material is selected and assembled. But where Wiseman limits himself, in each of his films, to one particular institution, Collective moves horizontally, following a particular investigation across institutions and ignoring the other responsibilities of these organisations.
Wiseman once said of his documentaries that “the assumption, correct or not, is that the audience has (the capacity to think) — because the only safe assumption to make about the audience is that they are as smart or dumb as the filmmaker.” This is true of Collective too, but that does not mean that Nanau’s film (or Wiseman’s, for that matter) is impartial or non-partisan. Its objectivity is the product of its reluctance to spoon-feed the audience, not a surrender of all critical thought.
The film ends with the 2016 Romanian elections, which saw the incumbent PSD win with a historic majority, rendering all the voting advocacy preceding the polls somewhat hollow-sounding. Vlad is in utter disbelief. His father has a meltdown over phone, and asks him, a little like the doctor of Graduation, to leave the country and go back to Vienna, where he can actually serve the people. It is a demoralising end to a short-lived period of hope, whose effect Nanau multiplies with a shattering coda: the family of one of the victims commemorates at his grave on Christmas day, just after the election results. Theirs is a long drive back home.
Collective is nominated in the Best Documentary and Best International Feature categories at Academy Awards 2021.
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