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There’s an All the President’s Men structure to the Romanian documentary Collective (Colectiv), with the initial field of inquiry opening up a wormhole down which the investigation dives, to find that an alternate universe has been hiding in plain sight all along.

The story starts out with the bare facts, shocking enough in themselves, of a fire in a night club called Colectiv, which killed 27 people and injured many more. In the following months a further 37 people died, mostly of infections picked up in Romania’s sub-standard hospitals. Public anger initially focused on the lack of fire exits in the club and the lack of regulation by the authorities, but then shifted when it was revealed that the hospitals where the injured and dying were taken were filthy, and that disinfectant supplied to kill bacteria had been diluted to the point of being useless.

What’s more, the company supplying the watered-down bactericides seemed to have a lock on supplying the major hospitals, where a system of kickbacks was so extensive that the siphoned-off money could have built and equipped brand new hi-tech hospitals.

Breaking this story isn’t one of the country’s establishment newspapers but Gazeta Sporturilor (Sports Gazette), a tabloid specialising in football stories, where a tiny team of journalists headed by a dogged Catalin Tolontan uses old-fashioned shoe leather skills – they ask questions and keep asking them – to get at the truth.

In many ways, and often grimly, this is a story that keeps on giving. Early on there’s footage which, we realise about a minute into it, is from inside the Colectiv club on the night of the fire. “That’s not part of the show,” says the lead singer of the band on stage with mild concern. Scant seconds later the blaze is raging across the ceiling, raining liquid fire down on the packed crowd and filling the room with dense smoke.

Survivor Tedy Ursuleanu
Tedy Ursuleanu, who survived the Colectiv fire

Later, the owner of the Hexi Pharma company that supplied the useless disinfectants – a company registered in Cyprus, base of a million shady operations – dies in a car crash and there is also footage of the wreck. Suicide? Murder? And later still there’s a shot of a burns victim in one of the filthy hospitals. There are maggots crawling through the burnt flesh on his face.

This is a story about a system that runs on corruption. The fallout from the Colectiv fire and its aftermath brought down a government, and at one point we see a health minister resigning, guilty of complacency at the very least.

This opens the door to the most remarkable part of an already remarkable film. The new health minister, Vlad Voiculescu, young, energetic, an outsider in many respects, takes up his post and commits to a level of transparency that’s extremely unusual.

And so we get an inside view of meetings where he learns he cannot fire the corrupt officials in charge, and hears from individuals – doctors, administrators – first-hand of the massive scale of theft from the public health system.

Fate has given director Alexander Nanau a gift in the open, decent and increasingly incredulous Voiculescu but the film would work without him, thanks to Tolontan and his team who, tabloid hacks to their fingertips, understand that Nanau needs, like all newspaper features, headlines and standfirsts to help guide the viewer. “That’s the guy,” says one, pointing at Hexi Pharma boss Dan Condrea – that’s for our benefit, not theirs. Talking about the dilute disinfectant, another says, “This isn’t killing bacteria, it’s killing people.” Neatly summarised, again for our benefit.

There’s a touching faith in journalism throughout – Nanau even gives us that old-school shot of a printer examining a hot-from-the presses edition – and hovering over the entirety of this powerful documentary is the unasked question, who’ll ask the questions when the world’s gone entirely over to Facebook likes and Buzzfeed infotainment?

Collective – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

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