In 2016, Spotlight won the Academy Award for Best Picture. A captivating look at the sheer grinding work of investigative journalism, the film was rightly lauded for its procedural pace and the almost documentary-style approach taken as the Boston Globe uncovered one of the most pervasive and shocking scandals in modern history. Five years later, Romania goes one step further with Collective, an actual documentary showing the process of exposing corruption as it happens in real time. It’s devastating, honest, and at times depressing, but hopeful throughout, as a national tragedy sparks the first real chance at a political sea change, as well as the forces working to stop it, drawing parallels with corrupt regimes around the world.
In 2015, a fire broke out at a nightclub in Bucharest called “Colectiv,” which gives the film its title. Because there were no adequate fire escapes, a total of 64 people died as a result, and over 100 more were injured. Over half of the deaths came well after the fact, due to severe infections the victims suffered while in hospital. Reporters at the “Sports Gazette” newspaper, led by Catalin Tolontan, start digging into the pharmaceutical companies that supply sanitizer to the hospitals, and uncover evidence that the disinfectants have been diluted up to 10 times, rendering them basically useless. Further investigation leads to high-level prosecutions for bribery and corruption, as well as the resignation of the Minister of Health, who had participated in the cover-up.
It’s a triumph for the fourth estate, especially as it comes from a sports newspaper rather than a more government-focused media outlet. I take a small amount of pride at the fact that this is EXACTLY what happens when sports media decides not to “stick to sports” as they’re often chided to do by moneyed interests. It happens a lot in this country (including at ESPN, where I worked for eight years), which is why outlets like Defector now exist, because to “stick to sports” means to stick to the box score of a game, and not to get involved in the nuance of people’s lives in and around those sports. Report the score, not the drug abuse going on in the clubhouse. Report on the league “saluting” soldiers, but not on the billions they spend making sure players can’t have adequate healthcare. Tell us how much money our favorite athletes make, but don’t tell us how ownership bribes politicians to curtail collective bargaining rights. Whenever they tell you, “Don’t look,” it’s always because they have something to hide, and when they say, “Stick to sports,” they’re really saying, “Don’t look beyond the highlight reel.”
If this were just a real-time version of Spotlight, the movie would end here, but director Alexander Nanau does what any good journalist would do, and continues to follow the story. More witnesses come forward to blow the whistle on malfeasance at the hospitals, including unqualified managers who serve as political appointees cutting corners to make profits rather than help patients. A pharmaceutical executive dies under mysterious circumstances. In the wake of the government disbanding, a new technocrat Health Minister, Vlad Voiculescu, takes it upon himself to clean up the national healthcare system, which he finds is rotten to the core, only to face strong nationalistic opposition from the very party that just resigned in the wake of their own failings since the fire at Colectiv.
It’s at this point that the narrative shifts from the “Gazette” to the Health Ministry, and the film’s title takes on its metaphorical meaning. The two work in tandem to try to reform managerial hiring practices, uncover more political misdeeds, and bring hospitals and burn units up to code so that this disaster never happens again. They are a collective working together for a common good. At the same time they are stymied by a xenophobic, populist, nationalistic hive mind preying on fears of “foreign” interference to turn the people against the very body that’s trying to help. It’s very telling that the incompetent Ministry first gets into trouble by falsely claiming their hospitals are just as good as Germany’s, yet by the end these same people are trying to attack Voiculescu because he used to work in Austria.
All of this takes place, oddly enough, in the year that Spotlight won Best Picture, the same year that an authoritarian populist got swept into the highest seat of our government on a similar message of hating foreigners and attacking the press, promising to end corruption while actively, nakedly engaging in it himself. It’s not lost on me, nor should it be on anyone else, how similar Romania’s situation was to our own, including in circumstances like at the Colectiv club. Acknowledge the tragedy, pretend to do something, but when the truth is exposed, turn the whistleblowers into the enemy in order to further consolidate power, regardless of the human cost.
And yet, that’s where Collective as a film remains life-affirming and hopeful. Peppered throughout the year-long proceedings is the story of Tedy Ursulenau, an architect who was severely injured in the fire, losing most of her fingers and suffering severe burns with permanent scarring. Nanau makes a point to constantly check in on her, as she’s turned her pain into art, modeling for photographers and painters. She works with NGOs to get mechanical prosthetic hands. She publicly advocates for her fellow victims and their families. The father of one of those lost comments that his late son wasn’t burned as badly as Tedy was, yet she endures and moves forward with a smile on her face, unafraid to show herself to the world. Tedy also works directly with Voiculescu, almost as a public ambassador for his reform attempts. With the patience of a saint, she listens to the Minister speak as diplomatically as he can about the roadblocks he faces, and she recognizes his empathy in these matters, a far cry from his predecessor.
There’s a sort of gallows humor to the blatant corruption on display in this system. The previous Health Minister claims sanitizers are safe because the “only accredited lab” said so, even though that lab is the one manufacturing the diluted product. After a new general election, a hospital manager is hired who cannot legally hold the position. Hospitals get approval to perform transplants even though they don’t have legally-mandated post-op facilities. In spite of all this, there are many moments where all anyone can do is laugh at the absurdity. Patients are literally getting eaten alive by maggots in their hospital beds, and people are afraid to come forward to testify against criminals for fear of legal ramifications for themselves.
All of this makes for a horrendous yet fascinating view of kleptocracy in action. It takes an extraordinary amount of bravery to tell the truth. We see it everyday in our own country, an experiment in democracy that’s held for nearly 250 years but faced its biggest existential threat in just the last few months. Romania, on the other hand, has only been at this for about 1/10 the time, and they too find Damocles’ Sword dangling above them. But in their short time as a free country, they’ve learned the value of speaking truth to power in amazingly quick fashion. And while the end result might not always be the right one for the moment, it’s a great comfort to know that there are good people who will fight the good fight simply by doing their jobs.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What advocacy do you participate in? Has tragedy ever driven you to change the world around you? Let me know!