We’re no longer human beings.
We’re of an era when everything good instills mixed feelings thanks to how far our species has fallen where the realm of empathy is concerned. It’s so demoralizing that we’ve been forced to hail those willing to do the bare minimum as heroes simply because they haven’t caved to the power of money’s so-called “great equalizer” … yet. How much buys your silence? How much for your complicity? How about your active participation? The old adage says everyone has a price because it’s very often true. Those who believe otherwise are coming from a position of idealism (and perhaps a little naiveté) simply because they’ve yet to experience the crushing weight of a system built to reward those who sell their souls. Jaded nihilism hasn’t yet sunk in.
So while our parents watch populist news stations full of talking head editorialists telling them what their political allies want in order to reap the benefits of being their mouthpieces, we find ourselves searching for honest journalism elsewhere. We look to Teen Vogue in the wake of a Trump presidency as being one of the few outlets with the courage and tenacity to not kowtow to those in power. We look to Mattel’s Barbie vlog to teach our children about racism before their families have the opportunity to pass down bigotry as birthright rather than admit it’s a leading reason for why we’ve yet to escape the vile clutches of our nation’s dark history. Money erodes honesty and the number of institutions worthy of our trust dwindles further.
Because many refuse to see this reality unfold before their own eyes here in America, a film like director Alexander Nanau and co-writer Antoaneta Opris‘ Colectiv [Collective] becomes a crucially important mirror some might be willing to finally let wake them up. So much of what we witness upon its long road of corrupt Romanian political bombshell after corrupt bombshell is pretty much what we’ve experienced here—especially recently. If Trump’s presidency has given us anything, it’s the evidence of just how unscrupulous politicians are and have been for a long time. While wealthy opportunists and profiteers have operated within our government for decades, never had it been so transparent. Never had it been so bold than with media allies helping to turn healthy skepticism into cult-like idolatry.
What platform had the guts to reveal just how bad things in Romania were as it concerned hospitals, healthcare, and government oversight? Gazeta Sporturilor. That’s right. The Sports Gazette. A daily sports-centered publication with a focus in soccer became the press outlet that dared to dig into the impossible story surrounding a tragic fire that engulfed an indoor concert venue and left almost two hundred people injured and twenty dead. An exposé about the lack of fire escapes and outdated safety protocols soon expanded to envelop a much broader investigation into the government’s handling of the aftermath once the number of people who died during recovery grew larger than that of those who died in the fire. Catalin Tolontan, Mirela Neag, and Razvan Lutac kept digging.
The first half of Collective follows this trio as they meet with sources, unearth discrepancies, and do the work that their Ministry of Health should have done decades previously. They needed doctors and hospital workers to come forward in order to discover these people weren’t dying from their burns, but bacteria caught while convalescing. From there it was figuring out why these volatile forms of bacteria are so prevalent in their country and not the rest of Europe, exposing a company diluting the disinfectants it sold to every Romanian hospital, and ultimately helping ignite the protests that would force the current government to resign so a technocracy could try and right the ship before elections one year later. Every time you think things can’t get worse—they do.
One of the best results of their work was former patients’ rights activist Vlad Voiculescu becoming the new Minister of Health. Vetting his ambitions and allegiances serves as a sort of transfer of attention for the film, moving from Tolontan and his team to an inside look at the bureaucracy Voiculescu contends with to overhaul a poisoned system that went as far up and down the chain as you could imagine. How will he balance what needs to be done with the seemingly immovable lines of red tape blocking progress? How will he earn trust not only from the press and public, but also the whistleblowers that refused to come to him because no one in his position had ever not already been bought before taking the job?
Everything is laid out with an impressive level of candor to prove Nanau’s rejection of censorship for a story that needs to be told in full for both citizens and international audiences alike. That means using cellphone footage from inside the club as the fire broke out. It means following parents of dead children looking for answers as the government continues lying about how their medical structure is on par with that of Germany. It means spotlighting Tedy Ursuleanu‘s burn victim as she combats the effects of what happened by becoming an activist to help others heal through speech and exposure (she’s the subject of a photo shoot that beautifully puts her scars on full display alongside her inspiring depiction of resiliency). These victims won’t be mere statistics.
And the work won’t always lead to happy endings. That’s the difference between documentaries and fictional accounts of the same subject. The latter generally possess hindsight to provide their ordeals a beginning and end while the former is more often than not still ongoing. So while there’s a lot to commend throughout this must-see journey of integrity amidst corruption, the reality remains that things may already be too late. There are opponents who label Tolontan’s journalism as inflammatory and blame it for causing more harm than the harm he’s exposed. There are also those who spin Voiculescu’s cautious inspection of an infrastructure gone bad to be the “real” corruption. Facts become sound-bytes to be dismissed by opinion. An upcoming election for change becomes a weapon to revert backwards.
It’s this duality that renders Collective so powerful, though. We’re thrust into the suspense as mafia rule is exposed, suicides are caused, and the lives of innocent children are politicized. We’re watching as reporters tirelessly seek honest answers, heroes selflessly come forward, and the guilty silently wait to see exactly how connected their friends are to buy their freedom. It’s the stuff that gives us hope when everything seems hopeless. It provides a light in the darkness that we’re desperate to see sustain itself and grow. And it’s a damning treatise about the ills of society and the damage that can be wrought when bad people ascend to power with little interest in the public that put them there. For which side will you fight? Money or truth?
 Catalin Tolontan in COLLECTIVE, a Magnolia Pictures release. ©Alexander Nanau Production, Samsa Film, HBO Europe 2019. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
 Tedy Ursuleanu in COLLECTIVE, a Magnolia Pictures release. ©Alexander Nanau Production, Samsa Film, HBO Europe 2019. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
 Vlad Voiculescu in COLLECTIVE, a Magnolia Pictures release. ©Alexander Nanau Production, Samsa Film, HBO Europe 2019. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.