Alexander Nanau’s Collective offers an unfiltered account of the consequences of government corruption, and the people who seek the truth.
In 2015 Alexander Nanau found his birth country Romania in a state of political unrest. The popular Colectiv nightclub caught fire after pyrotechnics set soundproofing material aflame. Twenty-six people died at the scene. Thirty-eight burn victims died later in hospitals. The national tragedy prompted massive protests against government authorities who permitted the club’s operations despite clear fire hazards. There was only one exit for the club’s hundreds of occupants.
“Suddenly everybody understood that corruption is not just the fact that they are stealing public money, that corruption, really, as an effect kills people,” Nanau comments in a Q&A held by Film at Lincoln Center. He continues:
The shock was greater because everybody thought that it could have been them in the club or it could have been their kids in the club. And basically, I understood that something new was going to happen now in the Romanian society. It felt like a ’68 in Eastern Europe because also the countries around us like Hungry, Saudi, you know, demonstrations in Poland for everybody, for their cause. But against the political class for sure. But still, it was so much happening. It was such a national tragedy, that it was hard to grasp how to make a film.
Nanau subscribes to a filmmaking method known as observational cinema in which he does not comment on the events of the film, but rather allows his subjects to move the story forward. The protagonists in Collective are never formally introduced or interviewed therefore, through context alone, the audience must discern who they are and what motivations they carry.
On how he approaches his subjects Nanau explains, “My job is to really start reading, you know on a continuous basis, start reading the dramaturgy of life and the development of characters in time in front of me.”
Nanau tries to anticipate the progression of the characters and frame them in a way that will communicate their arcs to his audience. He attributes his skill to his background in theater:
I learned that I just have to trust that, you know, life will bring you story, and you really have to just be emotionally connected to the characters and really try to have a very good intuition for what they’re going to do next, what will be the next step. And that is something that I learned in theater because I worked in theater. And in theater, you have time to sit and watch and you have time to connect in a way with the actors that you communicate, in a way, nonverbally. And you really start, you know, in rehearsals, you start to have the intuition for people, what, you know, what people will do next.
Nanau’s techniques of observational cinema make the events after the Colectiv fire even more shocking. Nanau follows the investigative team at Gazeta Sporturilor (Sports Gazette) as they unearth the negligence and lies within Romania’s hospital system. Many of the burn victims died due to hospital infections rather than their own injuries. Nanau gives us an inside view of the journalist’s conversations before they break a story and their reactions to damning evidence and fed-up whistleblowers in real-time.
Our view into the story gets even more intimate when Nanau enters the chambers of the newly appointed Minister of Health Vlad Voiculescu. The consequences of the former Minister’s malfeasance never ease and the need to mend the broken system only becomes more urgent.
Collective is a story of twists and turns that can only be offered by life itself. It is a deep dive into the corrupt political powers that control public life. Sadly, though surrounding a Romanian tragedy, it is also a universal story as the actions of the Romanian government are not dissimilar to those of governments around the world.
Nanau sums up the theme of the film as he reflects on his previous documentary Toto and His Sisters whose protagonists are poor children of the ages 10-13. He notes, “The lower the class, the less people have to hide.” Collective vividly represents the other side of that sentiment.
Collective is available to stream through Film at Lincoln Center’s Virtual Cinema.
Photo credit: Magnolia Pictures