Oscar and BAFTA Nominated Documentary ‘Collective’ Emboldens Whistleblowers, Filmmaker Says
The parents of one of the victims of the nightclub fire featured in the Romanian documentary “Collective” have spoken of their hope that the film’s Oscar and BAFTA nominations will mean more people know about the scandal, its director Alexander Nanau tells Variety.
“They posted a message on Facebook to their son saying: ‘We failed to help you at that time, but we’re so glad that the whole world will see the story, and all we want is that other people understand how things work, and that they will not have to go through the same thing,” he says.
The film followed a team of investigative journalists as they tried to find out why so many people died in hospital following the fire, which led them to uncover widespread corruption within the healthcare system. When the Minister of Health resigned, Nanau’s team shadowed Vlad Voiculescu, an activist for patients’ rights, who became the new minister, as he tried to reform the system from within.
The film, which competes in the International Feature Film and Documentary Feature categories of the Oscars, and in the Documentary section at the BAFTAs, is distributed by Magnolia Pictures and Participant in the U.S., and by Dogwoof in the U.K. and Ireland.
Nanau hopes the film inspires people around the world to fight similar battles to those documented in his film.
“The film resonated around the world with so many people,” he says. “There’s a story from Mongolia, for example. The journalists were afraid there because the parliament tried to bring in a law that [said] if they defame the country, they can be busted for it. So they saw [the film], and two days later a journalist started to investigate how COVID patients were treated, and then journalists started to encourage each other on social media, saying things such as, ‘Yes, we have to do it like the journalists in ‘Collective.’ ’ And miraculously, they brought down the Minister of Health and two days later, they brought down the whole government. So, it really seems to have hit a nerve, and [met] a need.” It also addresses a fear that many have had over the past few years that democracy has been taken for granted, and reminded them it has to be defended, he says.
Christine Vachon, the producer of award-winning films like “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Carol,” has been helping support the film’s awards campaign. The fact that Nanau was operating the camera as well as directing added to its strength, she says. “The intimacy that brought to the characters and the subjects was something I found incredibly compelling.” She adds: “To find this story, and be able to sculpt it so beautifully narratively I find nothing short of miraculous and that’s part of the reason I admire the movie so much.”
Many Oscar voters in the U.S. haven’t been able to see the nominated films collectively in theaters due to the pandemic, so conversations about them have been more difficult to have. Nevertheless, she says, “I feel like ‘Collective’ has managed to be one of those films that has sparked those kinds of conversations in the ether in other ways. I feel like the ways in which it explores all those layers of conspiracy and duplicity, and this notion that there are people who do the right thing resonates very, very much, especially at this point in particular, as America is at a new crossroads.”
Documentary filmmaking has been going through a golden period recently, but even so “Collective” stand apart, she says. “This one is sort of in a class by itself, I think, but yeah, right now, there’s been a real explosion of interest in documentaries. I think it’s partly that we’re all trying to broaden the kinds of experiences we can have in our living rooms. But also, the craft of documentary has just become truly exceptional in the past couple of years. I’m not quite sure what to attribute that to, but I think it’s really noticeable.”
What qualities does she look for in a documentary? “I think it’s the same things I look for in a narrative feature, which is a great story well told. In some ways, documentarians almost have a more difficult task, because they have to delve into the characters that they’re dealt, and the events that are given to them, as opposed to narrative filmmakers, who have a certain amount of license. So, again, I think that Alex’s ability to find that intimacy with his characters, to find that intimacy with the story, and still inject that sense of urgency… it’s just extraordinary craftsmanship.”
The film was very well received in Romania, Nanau says. “As in all polarized societies now, you have the haters, who say it’s political, and that it’s building a good image for this young minister. But many people have seen it. We had record numbers in cinemas in Romania for a documentary. We were only in cinemas for two weeks before they closed down because of the pandemic, but we had 25,000 admissions. The bar was around 3,000 to 5,000 for a documentary over many weeks. And then we went on to HBO, where it became the most viewed film in 2020, although it only started in April.
“And one thing that we can really measure is that the number of whistleblowers for the journalists exploded once the film was out. So if they had around 10 whistleblowers with valid leads per day before the film came out, once the film came out that went up to 80 to 120 per day, which shows that in a way people were ready to be inspired by the attitudes of the whistleblowers.”
The film has made a difference in Romania, he says. “I feel that the film will remain as this landmark that started the change in Romanian society. What I was interested in showing is that the timespan over which a society evolves or changes is different from that of an individual. And that is shown in the film. In the meantime, things have changed. People started to vote differently; young people have voted [in large numbers]; new reformist parties came; Vlad became part of one of them; they won enough votes last year in order to become part of a government coalition; and he’s back in the ministry [of health] since last Christmas. So things changed, but they never change at the pace that you would wish. And I think we have to understand these dynamics of society.”
The performance of the Romanian government during the COVID-19 pandemic is difficult to evaluate due to a lack of transparency, he says. But the evidence is that the problems of the past persist. “It was more or less the civil society and NGOs that brought protective equipment to the doctors, while the government tried to give the contracts to shady, friendly companies. And more of the COVID hospitals built by the civil society are functioning, while those built by the state are just not open because they can’t function. They were just built to spend the money,” he says.
The fact that Voiculescu is back in government as Minister of Health is described by Nanau as a “miracle”. “That said, he’s not really in charge, because they put a military commander in charge, so that they can control it. And they always say, like, ‘We can’t be transparent because it’s a military thing. It’s complicated.’ But still, the vaccination program is going quite well. We are getting vaccinated.”
The film’s focus is on attempts to get those in power to tell the truth, and so it was important that every effort was made to avoid any sense that the filmmaker had manipulated the scenes he captured. Nanau’s observational approach was key to this, he says.
“Whatever you’ve seen in the film is how I learned about things the moment I filmed them; it was new ground for me. The whole filmmaking process was a process of learning,” he says.
He adds that he had also been interested in the “cinematic” elements of the film, and portraying the “characters” as they battle to stay true to their values. “You try to observe them in the way they respond to things. So you’re not part of their game, basically, you’re really an observer – trying to observe human behavior.” But this must not compromise the facts. “In such a project, you really have to stay objective, and [maintain] a balance between historical facts, and how much you tell a cinema story.”
Staying objective was paramount but his training in documentary filmmaking, and the fact he didn’t grow up in Romania helped. “I have a certain distance. I don’t think that I already understand things; maybe a Romanian would not have felt the urge to discover things that much because he would feel like he knows how people are; he knows how these different characters will do things.”
He add that he becomes “objective in the editing room” as it allows him to put everything in perspective.
“I watched hundreds of hours of footage done by TV stations and other journalists around the case in order to understand all facets of it and different points of view. And then, in time, while you edit, you understand that you have to leave enough space for the viewer, not only to discover things himself or herself, but to ask their own questions about things,” he says. “And the time it takes to edit the documentary also offers you perspective. That’s why I think documentaries are so much more reliable, and give people watching them a more accurate representation of the world because you have perspective. I have perspective because I see the time span. And it’s not like news [shows] that do not have this perspective.”
Among the other films that inspired his approach were narrative features about “the personal responsibility of journalists,” from “Ace in the Hole” to “Spotlight.” He wanted to understand how to tell a story about the search for information. “I was interested in how these people manage under such pressure to stay themselves, which is for me the basic question of cinema. We’re supposed to identify [with them]. How do we compare our own life attitudes to the life attitudes of the characters we identify with?”
One thing that was puzzling in the film is why it took a sports newspaper, Gazeta Sporturilor, led by Cătălin Tolontan, to expose the scandal. The newspaper had been investigating scandals in the sports world for around 25 years and had brought down a sports minister who had gone to jail and had brought down big soccer bosses after exposing corruption in the sport. “The interesting part is, why did whistleblowers choose to go to sports journalists, rather than trusting other media? And I think that has a lot to do with the fact that sports journalists, and these ones most of all, proved that they are nonpartisan. You know, sports journalists are trained to be nonpartisan, because they’re always in between sports teams, and I think that the pressure of sports fans trains them quite well to resist even the pressure of a government.”
The newspaper is now owned by a Swiss company, but at the time a local media mogul owned it. “The great thing is that Tolontan managed to build up a newspaper that was doing good business, basically. Then, his investigations were read every day by people that open a sports newspaper, which means that puts a lot of pressure on politicians, because it’s a different audience than the audience of investigative platforms. And he managed to negotiate his own independence.
“It’s well known that the mogul was never allowed to come into the newsroom or say anything. They even investigated the mogul, which was a big breakup between this journalist and the people that own the newspaper. That’s remarkable.”
The scenes with the minister of health helped lift the documentary onto a different plane structurally. “I felt while we were filming that, although it was a strong story with the journalists, something was missing. Because when I started making the film, my goal was I really wanted to understand power, and to get into the heart of power, but at first it was only possible [to follow] the journalists who were investigating power,” Nanau says. “So when I heard that they were interviewing an outsider for the job of minister, I thought maybe that’s the chance to get it inside the power system. Maybe if he’s outside of politics, he doesn’t owe anybody [anything], and I can persuade him to understand the urgency of what we’re doing.”
He adds: “I think it took me 10 days to get to him until he accepted to meet me. And I met a young man, he was 33 years old, and had a young team of professionals around him that he built. And they said, basically, transparency is our main goal now. We believe in transparency. And he accepted the idea and said very clearly: Be aware, they will hate us for letting a filmmaker inside the ministry; it will be appalling for everybody. So be prepared for that.
“And so we came to an understanding. We made a deal to say that I would film whatever I can film. He would never tell me to stop the camera in front of other people. We would ask people if they wanted to be filmed, but basically, he gave me this complete trust and I think it’s very courageous because you have a lot of power in your hands when you film people, and you know what you can do with it in the editing room.”
He adds: “I think it also helped that we both lived for a long time outside Romania. So we clicked in the way that we understood the society that we wanted to contribute to.”
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