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The Independent Critic

Razvan Lutac, Mirela Neag, Catalin Tolontan, Tedy Ursuleanu, Vlad Voiculescu
Alexander Nanau
Alexander Nanau, Antoaneta Opris
109 Mins.
Magnolia Pictures

 "Collective" is One of 2020's Best Documentaries 

If Collective doesn't make you angry, you're simply not paying attention. 

Alexander Nanau's riveting, indeed maddening, documentary follows a remarkable team of Romanian journalists as they slowly begin to strip away layers of institutionalized corruption inside Romania's healthcare system. It begins on October 30, 2015 after a tragic fire inside the Bucharest nightclub Colectiv claims the lives of 27 yet even more in the days and weeks to follow. These initial scenes are heartbreaking, the fire itself captured engulfing the club in seconds on a grainy yet unmistakable. 

We are watching tragedy before our very eyes. 

The tragedy continues. 

37 burn victims who survived the fire will die in the coming days. This won't be because of their burns. It will be because of infections while hospitalized in hospitals ill-equipped to handle their wounds. 

The government speaks as governments do. ""At present, all medical needs are being met." 

The government lies as governments do. 

Despite the availability of state-of-the-art burn centers in nearby Germany, no transfers are made. Indeed, the public has been promised that their certified hospitals are able to provide the needed care. Romania's Health Department affirms the lies being told. 

Indeed, it is a system so corrupt that every layer of the institution is willing to lie to maintain the corruption. 

Catalin Tolontan, a Romanian journalist who attended early Health Department pressings, catches on early that something is amiss. However, what initially seems like classic government ineptitude is eventually revealed to be much, much more. 

The first revelations are bad enough, but there will be more despite the extreme resistance met by this small team of journalists. They remain steadfast in their persistance, a model of journalism that seems almost shocking when you realize that their publication is actually a sports publication. This is a story, a story of journalism, that remains most certainly relevant here in modern day U.S. 

In a televised interview, Tolontan, clearly being treated as an adversary, calmly responds ""We have blindly trusted the authorities. Myself included, as a journalist. When the press bows down to the authorities, the authorities will mistreat the citizens."

And you want to applaud.

A discovery of diluted infectants segues into labs that have been inappropriately accredited. Then, we discover the politicization of hospital management and even bribery by patients themselves. 

Every single layer is corrupt. 

Eventually, Vlad Voiculescu arrives on the screen. It's difficult to describe Vlad. He's an interim Ministe of Health, replacing obvious corruption and appropriately treated warily. Yet, he has a background in patient advocacy and, indeed, he is different. You can feel it in his opening moments and you honestly can't help but even fear for him as a fresh voice speaking against years of corruption. He is trying to make changes that layers of people and organizations don't want made. 

Vlad is practically a superhero. 

You not only get the sense that he's not corrupt, but you get the sense that he can't be corrupted. 

Collective is a riveting film. It's easily one of 2020's best documentaries and easily one of the best documentaries about journalism ever made. It is so dramatic and so engaging that at times you even forget it's a documentary. While the film utilizes sub-titles, it's easy to forget they are there as the story itself is so immersive and engaging. Nanau shoots the film himself and his access here is remarkable. 

Collective is a reminder of the power of journalism to hold systems accountable and, with a combination of persistence and luck, to move them toward something resembling change. However, the other true power in Collective is that we're only five years later and it remains to be seen just how much change will ultimately manifest. Corrupt institutions die hard and they certainly don't change overnight. There's always lingering corruption whether in the crusty forgotten corners of the institution or in the hearts of those whose presence lingers. 

There is tragedy here. That much is certain. Yet, there are shards of hope amidst the presence of those like Tolontan and Voiculescu and others who persisted and even others who protested and demanded better. We are, indeed, better as a collective when we demand that our voices be heard. 

Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic