A Romanian scandal that shook the world, and wakened us on how the hunger for power creates an ever-growing gap between society and corrupt governments. Director Alexander Nanau’s two-time Academy Award Nominated observational documentary, COLLECTIVE (2019), investigates a nightclub fire that killed 27 and injured a further 180 people. The audience is faced with the shocking truth about the Romanian health care system, as mildly burnt patients mysteriously began to die and how, to this day, accountability remains overlooked. The truth is frightening, infuriating and we are presented with a challenge: if corrupt systems have gotten so out of control, there may be no turning back anymore.
Alexander Nanau was born in Bucharest in 1979. He studied at the The Deutsche Film-und Fernsehakademie (Berlin) and held scholarships at the Sundance Institute and the Akademie der Künste (Berlin). His previous works include The World According to Ion B. (2010) and Toto And His Sisters (2015). After its release in 2019, COLLECTIVE won Best Documentary at the European Film Awards, the Satellite Awards, and Critics Association Awards in Boston, London, and Toronto. It was the first Romanian film nominated in two separate categories at the 93rd Academy Awards for Best International Feature Film and Best Documentary Feature. Nanau was chosen as a juror for the 78th Venice Film Festival.
For the cover story of our FALL 2021 print issue, FRONTRUNNER sat down with Nanau to address the controversy of politicians’ bottomless pockets, how government plays with our entitlement to health care, and why the next generation leaves home instead of instigating change.
I still feel tense after watching Collective. Could you share what sparked this idea and how you brought this scandal onto the screen?
It was a national tragedy in Romania, the whole country was following it on the news and the public was mourning for days. We had the largest demonstrations after the Romanian Revolution, and mostly young people took to the streets against authorities and corruption. On top of that came the manipulation that hospitals have the right conditions to treat the burnt patients. When we started a month later, it was clear that the story would be to understand why they lied and let people die instead of allowing them leave the hospital. As my aim was an observational story, I didn’t want interviews or to show old footage of demonstrations. We were looking for characters whom we could follow, and through whose eyes the audience can see the story in a cinematic way. This led us to approaching journalist Catalin Tolontan and once his team agreed, things started to speed up and turn into a film.
How do you think we can encourage people to speak up about issues that might have been swept under the carpet before? We can see a wave of more people speaking up, but what were, and still are, the risks of doing so in Romania?
It depends on which area they come forward [for]. After we released COLLECTIVE, one of the good things that happened was that the number of whistleblowers exploded. Journalists were contacted by dozens more whistleblowers. However, in [certain] countries, the mafia infiltrates politics more and more and if you blow the whistle regarding money-fuelled industries, it can become dangerous. We saw it in the Netherlands when journalist Peter R. de Vries was recently assassinated. In the healthcare sector – as we’ve seen in the film – for the doctor, the danger was being marginalised, losing her job, failing to get another job in a public hospital, and living as an outcast as she, so to say, betrayed the system.
It’s said that it’s better to not be aware of the whole truth regarding a particular issue. Do you think that there are cases when this is a benefit to the public to be told and shown something only to a certain extent?
No. I think the truth has to be in the public. I see misinformation in countries like Romania, and also Hungary. Hungary is a more severe case because they’ve shut down the media, but you still have online platforms where people are informed. The more people know the more minds can be changed. In the short term, it can be very discouraging because the traditional system seems crooked and works in the favour of those in power. In the long run, you can see that society is becoming more aware of their rights and who are the good or bad-intentioned politicians. Information is needed to evolve in society, but often the problem is the quality of journalism that brings the information to the public. The press is often de-professionalised, meaning the big media outlets are working with the authorities because they receive financing – COVID being a great example. We have COVID funds, we don’t know why, but we have a lot of it. In Romania, there are fantastic platforms where young journalists are carrying out great investigations. They are powerful and people are reading them. These young journalists manage to reflect on what is happening in the background and bring that information to light.
Would you say the younger generation has a bigger moral responsibility to speak the truth?
There is a generation that understands this and they do not wish to do it any differently. They perceive their rights as something they stand up for. We perceive the truth through a thin layer of society. However, the masses will never know and will keep voting for the corrupt, right-wing political parties. We see it in Hungary, which is supposed to be a much more developed and educated society than Romanian society, yet Viktor Orbán seems to maintain power and step on people’s rights. In Romania, when the government acts too courageously on the part of corrupt politicians, people take to the streets. They attempt to defend their democracy.
Healthcare is every citizen’s legal right, yet governments often control who receives it, to what extent, and how quickly it’s dispensed. It’s infuriating how, in most cases, you don’t have a say regarding your health.
The Romanian health care structure is the same as in Communist times. It’s all based on lies. The same powerful people who control the medical universities and hospitals govern the public health care system. They’re using their profession to become rich. As seen in the film, people bribe doctors. Hospital managers are appointed by political parties only to steal the funds of the hospitals. How do you reform such a structure? There’s a huge absence of good doctors. Those who chose the profession because they care about people can’t survive in the system because they know they can’t provide the best medical care for the patients. They have to be submissive to these gurus as there are no more good doctors, just corrupt crooks who go after the money.
I see many connections to how [Victor] Orbán runs Hungary’s non-existent and corrupt healthcare system. He uses COVID as an excuse to divert the public’s attention from the real issues, which is the current rotting state of public hospitals, lack of hygiene, shameful maintenance, trained doctors fleeing the country, and the real number of deaths that occur from hospital infections.
Yes. For example, the minister you see in the film, Vlad Voiculescu, was re-elected at the beginning of this year as Health Minister, and because he revealed the fake numbers of real COVID deaths, the Prime Minister dismissed him.
Would you say this is the reason why Romanians are highly resistant to COVID vaccinations?
No, I think that’s different. It’s the failure of the government. They lied about the real numbers, then the restrictions were chaotic. Instead of offering funds to businesses to survive, they decided to keep everything open and pretend that all is good. Once everything opened up, people stopped getting vaccines. The leadership is a total failure.
Or the absence of leadership in this case. What was the reaction to a scandal as great as this? I understand that the public is not used to going against the government due to long-lasting residue of Communism. I’d imagine people struggled to react.
There was a movement of change after the fire. The incident is still seen as point zero in the transformation of society. There are now new parties in the parliament that are anti-corruption. They won elections for mayors and openly fight corruption. Collective started the change, but it slowed down again. The fact that we have these new parties that are pro-European is a good sign. The problem is the government’s liberal parties, who pretend to be anti-corruption and promise reform, but fail to do it because it works for their benefit. A completely bankrupt system is advantageous because soon, Romania will receive 88 billion Euros from the European Union in COVID funds. That money has to land in certain pockets, so they prefer a system that isn’t working.
The system is their slave. I often come across headlines that fascist countries are growing inside of Europe. It makes me believe that in these places, fear is still a primary tool. People constantly fear for their health. Established national health care is a permanent institution to own and dictate power, regardless of the way it’s run.
It sure is the case in Hungary, where people fear foreigners crashing their culture. In Romania, people are not in fear, but people are annoyed that the standard of living is not evolving as fast as they would like it to. For the first time, the right-wing party entered parliament because they promised to solve this problem. They’ve now replaced the left-wing parties.
Another noticeable aspect of the film is that the audience has the illusion that apart from the person on camera, there is no other presence in the room. You’ve mastered the observational part of the genre. While filming, was the story still evolving with an unwritten ending with you acting as a member of the audience in the process?
I developed this film through an observational method. I embedded myself in the lives of the characters and tried to make them unaware of the camera. It helps that many things are happening simultaneously. It’s also about how you meet people, befriend them, gain their trust, and the amount of time you spend with them. These are all factors that play into achieving that the viewer does not sense the filmmaker in between him or herself and the characters. That is one of my aims and was in my last film, too. The viewer can be absorbed by what’s happening on camera without being aware of the person filming it. Operating the camera is also important, which I do myself for this exact reason.
Which brings us to an important point in the final part of the film: Vlad Voiculescu’s dad calls him after the election and tells him that the Romanian society is blind, hopeless and change won’t happen for the next 60 years. It was such a critical moment. I meet many young people who empathise with these words. Countries are led by selfish, narcissistic leaders forcing younger people to emigrate. Is this something that Romania experiences and does the government interpret this as a betrayal?
That’s the main theme in many families. We grew up here, but should we leave, when should we leave, should we take our kids to this country [or that one]. What Vlad’s father says is interesting because he addresses a main issue of the people in Romania. However, when one says that the people who are leaving betray their own countries, I would answer that the generation before them betrayed the country because they didn’t change anything. They should have stood up for the truth to not accept corruption and compromises, and to prepare society for the children when they want them to prosper. The only smart way for young people, if they want to achieve something, is to get out. That’s the only way to learn and see other forms of society. Later, they can still come back and contribute. If you’re in the same bucket of shit, then you do not have anybody to learn from. The biggest issue seen in Romania is that even in universities, education is horrible. People who own a professor’s title are either old – who have no connections to the real world, have nothing to teach, and are used to corruption – or they are children, who put nothing down on the table, yet became professors. I teach in international film schools and I’ve never seen another country like Romania where people who have no career or experience lead sections of the art schools. The kids having not done a single thing suddenly become directors of departments and heads of universities.
They haven’t climbed the ladder.
They had the right parents to put them there.
Have you met anyone during the project, a survivor perhaps, who gives you hope for the future to break through the noise? Tedy Ursuleanu seems to be a good candidate.
Yes. There was one of our collaborators in the club who was leading the team that filmed the concert, which is at the beginning of the film. For the past year, he has been working in the Ministry of Health to help reform everything linked to burnt patients. People get involved.
Do you think there should be anyone held accountable for a scandal of this size? How do you break this cycle of mismanagement?
You can only break it if you have a system that works. If there is no accountability, then there is no evolution in society. These people keep repeating these scandals. Since the Collective case, no politician or hospital manager who lied that they can treat the patients were asked to attend court. The owners of the company who sold the disinfectants are walking free, and so is the hospital manager. The case is still not solved in court, which means that the victims did not receive any compensation. Nobody was found guilty. With a corrupt system, you can’t change society.
Corruption keeps getting stronger and there are fewer remaining solutions. Once they go too far, we can’t turn it around. All these new parties give hope, but they are not as strong as the corruption that has embedded itself into the country.
Not yet, but I believe that because they are a good example of how things can be done differently, hopefully the public will re-elect them.