Romanian filmmaker tracks a tragedy in ‘Collective’

Vlad Voiculescu in a scene from the documentary "Collective."
(Magnolia Pictures)

When a fire swept through Bucharest’s Colectiv nightclub on Oct. 30, 2015, the result was a tragic loss of life that shook the Eastern European nation and the world. Twenty-seven people perished that night, and 184 were injured, including 146 who were immediately hospitalized. On Nov. 4, following massive protests over a regime that allowed the venue to operate without a proper permit, the ruling government resigned.

But that turned out to be just the beginning of the story. A larger scandal was about to unfold, a tale that is captured as it happened in Alexander Nanau’s critically acclaimed documentary, “Collective.”

Romania’s Oscar submission in the academy’s International Film category and one of the best reviewed films in 2020, “Collective” slowly unearths shocking misconduct inside Romania’s health industry that is almost too horrifying to believe. Despite a population of more than 19 million people, the country’s hospitals were not equipped to treat the injured. Moreover, an unexpected number of patients died of burns that should have been easily treatable. Something was clearly wrong.

Nanau knew he wanted to chronicle the investigations spurred by the protests and found his initial muse in Cătălin Tolontan, a respected journalist who was on the trail of the story. Except, of course, he initially turned the filmmaker down. Nanau recalls, “He said, ‘No, our newsroom has to be protected. You can’t just come in with a camera.’ But I think the fact that he saw how serious we take things, that we were also digging into a lot of things and have sources inside the healthcare system, made him understand that we [took] it pretty seriously.”


Early on, Tolontan let them know that there were rumors that infections in the hospitals were the cause of the unexplained deaths. Tolontan and his team discovered that Hexi Pharma, a private pharmaceutical company, had been selling watered-down cleaning supplies that led to massive bacteria outbreaks at hospitals across the country. Did they communicate that information to Nanau? Well, not exactly.

“The thing is, until they fully trusted us they had to be very cautious,” Nanau says. “They didn’t expect that I would come with one camera and maybe one sound man. And we, at the same time, didn’t know what they were doing, so I was just trying to cover their daily work and to put the puzzle pieces together, what they are following. And after a while I understood what they were doing.”

As the scandal grew into an indictment of decades-old government corruption, Nanau did what would be unthinkable for many of his peers. He changed his main character and the film’s point of view halfway through the film. Although Tolontan still appears sporadically, the focus shifts to Vlad Voiculescu, a nonpolitical appointee charged with keeping the Ministry of Health running until new elections were held.

“I heard that they are interviewing this guy from outside politics, this patient activist. And I thought that might be the chance, because I really wanted to get inside the system. I wanted to see the same story from the other side,” Nanau says. “I thought, ‘OK, it will be hard, but we have to take the chance. We have to go inside the ministry if we can.’”

Voiculescu provided remarkable access as whistleblowers came forward and more burn victims succumbed to their bacterial infections. If Tolontan’s arc mirrored the Romanian people’s outrage over the growing affair, then Voiculescu’s portion delivered the horrifying heartbreak. Through three years of filming and editing, Nanau then had the daunting task of compressing the story and its emotional beats into a self-set limit of 90 minutes.

Nanau reflects on the challenge, noting, “It had to stay a universal story where we recognize how manipulation works, how power works, what’s the difference between quality information and fake news? I found all these things more important, because during filming in 2016, the world around us started to transform or to reveal itself as being very similar to Romania. Populists that really step on people’s rights and lives. And it started with Brexit. You had Trump. You had in the Philippines, Duterte. So, in a way, it was clear to me that suddenly the story we were filming was not any more a local story.”


It’s been over a year since “Collective” premiered at the 2019 Venice Film Festival and, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nanau has had a good amount of time to reflect on his next endeavor.

“I feel that our perception of authenticity and our need for authenticity has changed a lot through the pandemic,” Nanau says. “So, I don’t know what the next thing will be. I have several options now on the table, but it will be that project where I feel like that’s the thing I need to tell now in the world we’re living in now.”