Catalin Tolontan in Collective

MA15+, 109 minutes

5 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury





A fire that swept through a nightclub in Bucharest killed dozens of young people in 2015. The premises were neither a proper venue for the kind of pyrotechnic music event that was taking place nor were there adequate safety measures to allow young clubbers to escape and survive.

The name of the nightclub seared into the collective memory in Romania is Colectiv.

Another 37 people died in the months that followed while recovering in the Romanian hospital system. Some died, like a young woman who had burns to only 10-15% of her body but succumbed to secondary infection in hospital. Members of the media began to sense something was very wrong with the national health system.

The seminal event of the fire at Colectiv is the backstory to this very fine documentary directed by Alexander Nanau and co-written with Antoaneta Opris. It is quite an exposé.

Tedy’s face and body the subject of a photographic exhibition, mute witness to the tragedy 

The film’s detailed coverage of interactions between media and government, and its patient attention to various unfolding situations exposes the deep corruption that existed in Romanian health care.

At the same time, it demonstrates what can happen when the system that everyone’s lives depend on gets into the wrong hands.

Those of us who can remember the days of the country’s former leader Nicolae Ceausescu will be wondering about the extent of advances since the notoriously corrupt communist state collapsed in 1989.

One of the victims of the fire is 29-year old architect Tedy Ursuleanu. Her presence recurs like a motif throughout. Her lovely face is untouched by the nightclub fire, but her scarred and maimed body is witness to its horrors.

Tedy Ursuleanu in Collective

Tedy’s face and body become the subject of a photographic exhibition, mute witness to the tragedy that took place. In later scenes, one of these photographs appears in the office of the Minister for Health, Vlad Voiculescu.

Initially, the documentary follows tenacious newspaper journalist, Catalin Tolontan. He and his colleagues begin to expose the facts behind the loss of life in hospital, where burn victims were dying of secondary infections. Images of patients with maggots in their wounds were leaked to the press.

Disinfectant supplied by a company called Hexi Pharma was found to be critically deficient, diluted to 10 percent of its strength.

Far from having a health care system as good as Germany’s, as the country’s politicians were saying, Romania had been labouring under a corrupt health care system that failed to protect citizens and lined the pockets of its corrupt political class.

The Minister for Health, suavely handsome Nelu Tataru, holds the line under questioning while facing a battery of media cameras. Collective feels, and is, very first hand.

an amazing story of how a health system characterised by incompetence or indifference or corruption can and will kill

Tataru tries to insist that emerging revelations about Haxi Pharma products did not constitute a crisis. Then it is revealed that the government had been alerted to the issues but had ignored them over at least eight years.

People have taken to the streets, and Tataru doesn’t last long. His successor appears, looking like a younger version of his predecessor and a bureaucratic clone, so we expect more of same. But Vlad Voiculescu, who has been working in Austria, is another thing altogether. It’s a slow reveal.

From its muted palette to its forensic storytelling, there is nothing showy about Collective. It’s simply an amazing story of how a health system characterised by incompetence or indifference or corruption can and will kill.

After the CEO of Haxi Pharma, Dan Condrea, dies in a car accident, Tolontan is taken to task in a television interview. The press investigation had driven a man to his grave. Didn’t Tolontan feel in some way responsible for driving a man to suicide? He responds by pointing out that he is giving people an insight into power and the impact it has on their lives. It is never clear how Condrea had died.

The revelations about the failures of the Romanian health system, from the administrators to the health products used, go on and on. How the hell can it be solved, Voiculescu wonders. Then, despite disclosures of corrupt practice and his efforts to put an end to it, the government he is part of loses the 2017 election.

Some must still think he has the answers. Since the serving Romanian health minister resigned last year during the pandemic, Voiculescu has returned to the top job.

First published in the Canberra Times on 10 April 2021