“Collective” – Working together [MOVIE REVIEW]

Catalin Tolontan in “Collective.” Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

“Collective,” a documentary by Alexander Nanau, is so much more than the sum of its parts. What started as journalistic sleuthing on the part of Catalin Tolontan of the Sports Gazette into the October 2015 fire at the Collectiv, a popular underground nightclub in Bucharest resulted in 64 deaths and 146 injuries. Illegal pyrotechnics by the band, Goodbye to Gravity, ignited the foam on the pillars creating a toxic gas; the ceiling caught fire and collapsed, and the young people trying to escape discovered there were no fire exits.  No fire exits? This was just part of the bribery and corruption endemic to Romanian politics. The resulting mass street protests led to the resignation of the Prime Minister and the prosecution of the club’s owners.

This kind of corruption by high officials who looked away when the right amount of money changed hands was just the sort of business as usual that didn’t change even after the death in 1989 of strongman and former president Nicolae Ceausescu whose bloody and corrupt rule over the then-Communist nation was infamous for its brutality and wholesale corruption. His execution by firing squad theoretically ended Communism in Romania, but the new government continued with business as usual in the corruption and bribery arena.

Tolontan, however, was onto a related story when a whistleblower came to him and revealed how many of those who were hospitalized because of the fire had died, not of their wounds but of bacterial infections running rampant through the hospitals. The disinfectants used by over 300 Romanian hospitals were provided by a company named Hexi Pharma owned by a well-connected businessman named Dan Condrea. It was discovered that he diluted his disinfectant 10 times before its delivery; often the hospital would dilute it again. A journalist for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung stated, “It’s like the Graham Greene novel The Third Man, where Harry Lime is diluting penicillin and selling it in postwar Vienna. But this guy in Romania makes Harry Lime seem like an amateur in comparison!” The Minister of Health, a former hospital manager, speaking to the press, announced that they had conducted an investigation into the use of those disinfectants and found them to be 95% effective. Of course the approved labs doing the testing were all arms of the government.

Tolontan wasn’t satisfied. In classic investigative style, he and his troops followed the money. The holding company of Hexi Pharma was in Cyprus and was used to disguise the money laundering Condrea used to generate the profits and bribes necessary to maintain his stranglehold on the hospitals. As the investigation heated up, Condrea died in a fiery crash, allegedly a suicide.

But this investigation had a life of its own. The Hexi scandal led to the resignation of the Health Minister and a new one was appointed, Vlad Voiculescu, young, idealistic, and determined to demand transparency in his department.

Following the leads of the newspaper investigations, he did find wholesale bribery and corruption. Horrified, he discovered how none of the country’s hospitals reached the minimum standards demanded by the EU. Hospital managers were political appointees who controlled millions of Euros that seemed to disappear in thin air. Promises were made to the families of many of the fire survivors that they would be treated outside the country were broken because the managers blocked the requests. Treatment outside the country was money that didn’t go into their pockets.

Nanau, given unprecedented access, films Vlad in his meetings and conducts his own interviews. He follows Tolontan and his staff as they hunt down further leads in various hospitals for other proof of a corrupt health system. Digging and digging reveals a health system where each newly uncovered layer is more rotten than the previous one.

Tedy Ursuleanu in “Collective.” Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Another major strength of this film is the way Nanau concurrently follows the story of Tedy Ursuleanu, a survivor disfigured and maimed by the fire who attempts to focus on a positive future. Her strength in refusing to allow her injuries to dictate her future and a willingness to embrace public life anchors the film in humanity.

This is not just a documentary. This is a thriller and you will be on the edge of your seat from the first moment to the last. Nanau has given us something personal and revealing. You will not be the same after experiencing this film. Do not miss this one!

“Collective can be viewed through the South Bay Film Society Virtual Cinema program from November 20- December 13.  For tickets and information go to https://www.southbayfilmsociety.com/

 

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Written by: Neely Swanson

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