Friday 20 November 2020

Stopping the rot: "Collective"

The hook of the Romanian documentary Collective is that of watching a hitherto unknown story being pieced together. In October 2015, a fire that broke out during a gig at the Bucharest nightclub Colectiv killed 27 people and injured 180, a tragedy preventable enough that it brought down a sitting government. (Let's just say this information is sobering when viewed from the perspective of post-Grenfell Britain.) Still, this wasn't the half of it. A further 37 people later perished in hospital, ill-equipped as they were to handle such an elevated number of burn victims. How ill-equipped those hospitals were was a scandal exposed by a team of journalists, headed by editor Cătălin Tolontan, writing in the Gazeta Sporturilor (Sports Gazette). Digging into the detail of these cases as they'd more typically done the possession stats of Liga 1 football matches, Tolontan's team didn't know what they were onto at the outset, just that something smelled funny; it was follow-your-nose journalism in its essence. What they uncovered was criminal negligence at the highest levels of national government, a failure to provide the right care that spoke to a wider, graver moral failure. The filmmaker Alexander Nanau showed up in the Gazeta newsroom as the plot thickened, perhaps with an eye to illustrating that sunlight is still the best disinfectant - a phrase that assumed a whole new meaning in this particular case. Yet what he spied as that case developed were the Romanian state's darkest, most dysfunctional corners, black holes no sunbeam could possibly penetrate, those places in which hope curls up to die.

In this, Collective picks up from those Romanian New Wave fictions of the Noughties, with their heightened fidelity to everyday realities, however unappetising they might be. Those films were so dependent on a rigorously maintained minimalism for their effects that the movement gave itself little room to develop; it's why that Wave dissipated within a decade. Its ripples persist here, though, both thematically (Romania as hotbed of rank corruption, the legacy of the Ceaucescu regime) and stylistically (the quiet, unflashy observation of same). Early on, there are one or two sequences where the journalists are caught painstakingly explaining information they must already know to one another; I was reminded of those scenes in CSI where scientists patiently explain forensic procedure for the sake of the watching layperson. Here, clearly, we're being caught up. Yet gradually Collective assumes a weight of veracity, doggedly circling around subjects in meeting rooms who actually look like journos. It's what Spotlight was going for, even as it sought to disguise individuals who looked like Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo in flannel and chinos. What's heroic is the effort to define and tell a story where the stonewalling authorities insisted there was none - and where some blustering observers (and this seems very pertinent to the world beyond Romania) insisted a prying press were the real problem.

We know headway of a sort is being made when the newly appointed health minister Vlad Voiculescu - a conscientious young reformer, someone appointed to make right and restore faith - invites Nanau in to film his own meetings. All of a sudden, Collective permits us a sense of doors being opened, just a ray or two of sunlight creeping into shot. But there's only so much Voiculescu can achieve; he's firefighting after the fact. For all the hopes that might be raised by this minister's easy, unforced transparency, his admirable willingness to meet firsthand with survivors of the Colectiv fire, his ability to laugh off the slurs of the populist press, what Nanau's film ultimately comes to document is an irresolvable tension between individuals and the system they've inherited. What public servants like Tolontan and Voiculescu find themselves up against are the last remnants of the old ways, a mouldering rot resistant to anything so radical or revivifying as a root-and-branch clearout. (Again, the problem would appear as international as it is local: cf. The White House or Downing Street, late November 2020.) That Collective is informed by a considerable degree of leftist despair - the same despair one may have felt watching David Simon's The Wire, say; the despair one feels in the presence of Brexit, or Trump, or Boris Johnson - becomes more and more apparent the deeper we burrow into its two hours. 

Yet even amid the galling detail of this case (the slaphappy invoicing, the maggots gathering on flesh wounds) and even as we travel further from the nightclub fire itself, Nanau never loses sight of what was at stake in the Gazeta team's investigation, and why it remains so important to come out fighting for the truth. From time to time, in the course of the occasional quiet news day, his camera checks in with Tedy Ursuleanu, a badly scarred amputee who was in the Colectiv that October night and now faces the uphill struggle of pulling her body, life and soul back together. And in the closing moments, Nanau joins a family around the graveside of their teenage son, who didn't even have the consolatory luck of escaping the fire with a tattered life. That's who team Tolontan are fighting for; the anger we can sporadically feel pulsing through the film's veins derives from the understanding these people should never have had to reassemble themselves in this way. Collective is destined for positive reviews, because it makes beleaguered journalists the heroes, but there's no reason why it shouldn't also play to an audience of compassionate citizens, and explain to anybody else why good journalism matters. Because - as the past decade has so amply demonstrated - someone needs to keep an eye on those drawn to positions of power. Because that vigilance and diligence is oftentimes the difference between life and death.  

Collective screens on Thu 26 at the Robert Burns Centre in Dumfries, and is available to stream today via Prime Video, Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI Player.

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