From Collective (2019), dir. Alexander Nanau (image courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

In Alexander Nanau’s compelling documentary Collective (read our review from last year’s Toronto International Film Festival), a tragic fire at the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest leads to an unthinkable public health disaster. Severely burned patients were dying in the city’s hospitals, all while the government falsely insisted that the system was prepared to treat them. The film follows a local sports newspaper as it investigates what exactly went wrong. They unravel a chain of corruption and kickbacks which reaches the highest level of municipal government. Nanau takes the idea of collectivity as both his main theme and organizing principle, weaving stories not just of the reporters’ efforts, which play out like a finely tuned political thriller, but also the victims and their families. A paean to journalistic doggedness, Collective is also a stark warning about how we must never take the processes of democracy for granted. With the film opening in virtual cinemas, Hyperallergic spoke with Nanau over Zoom about his approach to observational documentary.


Hyperallergic: It’s been five years since the fire at Colectiv. How does this tragedy persist in the memory of Romanians?

Alexander Nanau: It persists because the healthcare system hasn’t changed. There’s a court case against the club’s owners and the firemen, but they haven’t started one against the authorities lying that they could treat patients, or the doctors who lied that there were adequate facilities or who prohibited the transportation of the burn patients to treatment centers abroad. We continue to have a high death rate even without COVID patients. Officials continue to lie about hospital infections. But society has changed a lot. The Colectiv case was a milestone that started this change.

H: How were you able to gain such a high level of trust and access?

AN: It took some time for the journalists to see how they could protect their work. They finally agreed because they saw that we had done our own investigation. We had sources inside the system. We had a very clear deal regarding the most vulnerable part. When whistleblowers came in, I had five minutes to see if they agreed to be filmed. If not, I would leave the room. We assured the whistleblowers who agreed to be filmed that we wouldn’t make anything public until we edited the film, which would take another year or two. We would then watch the scenes with them, and they would decide if they still wanted to go public. Luckily, all the women whistleblowers were very courageous and fine with us showing the film.

H: How big was your team behind the scenes?

AN: Five to six people, three on the research team. It was a very consistent work of trying to get the big picture, to speak with all the different sides — the doctors who were accused, the victims, the parents. I did dozens of hours of interviews before we chose who we would follow.

Alexander Nanau

H: How did you get the health minister, Vlad Voiculescu, to let you film his efforts as he got bogged down by corruption?

AN: Voiculescu was known in Romania as a patient activist. He’s run Magic Camp, for cancer kids, inspired by the camps created by Paul Newman. I saw a chance to gain access. I knew that it would be great to do the bigger case on corruption and gain his perspective. One of our main angles in the film is transparency, because we believe that there is no information by the ministry of health that should be held secret from citizens. They are entitled to know what decisions are being taken, based on what criteria. Voiculescu said, “Let’s do it. Let’s be bold.”

H: How did you obtain footage inside the hospital?

AN: You can’t film inside hospitals in Romania. That video is leaked material the journalists received from a whistleblower.

H: And the footage of the fire itself?

AN: Mihail Grecea was at the club to film the concert. He had five cameramen, two of whom didn’t survive. The footage is from one of the cameras. Mihail was then by my side recording sound and the artistic coordinator for the project. He was in therapy while we were filming.

H: What was it like to collaborate with editor Dana Bunescu, who’s also edited Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeksand 2 Days and Cristian Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu?

AN: Dana is the most prominent Romanian editor, and I’d say that she’s the co-author of the Romanian New Wave. What I do is edit first and then, after several months, when I get stuck, I bring somebody in. Editor George Craig is very good with structure and a screenwriter, so he takes my rough cuts and starts to play around to see what the story is. Then I keep editing, and then Dana comes in. She has such a sharp eye for what the story needs. She’s cynical and very fast. She helps you get rid of the ballast and get the whole thing together.

From Collective

H: Any thoughts on how nonfiction, creative and observational, has gained more ground in the past ten years? There seems to be a sense that as our democracies are in trouble, the documentary form is reenergized.

AN: I think it has a lot to do with the fact that documentary teams spend a lot more time to tell their stories. Their representation of the world is more accurate and believable than what we get with fast news and social media. Documentary teams, at least the ones I know, genuinely want to portray the world as it is. Viewers are looking for such intentionality. They don’t trust the big media outlets anymore. Which is not good, in a way. It can be misused, with visually attractive documentaries that want to win the audience for one or the other side.

H: What’s your main principle while doing your own camerawork?

AN: It’s what captures the situation best. I describe my work as the work of a street photographer. I try to gain people’s trust, to the point where they see that I will not judge them. People have masks, so you have to get rid of them. My job is to take images that convey what’s inside of them. Many times, I just try to read with the camera. It’s very hard to let somebody else do it, because it has a lot to do with my relationship with the protagonists.

I’ve watched a lot of observational films and I’ve always thought that they all have one thing that I don’t like: You feel that somebody is filming, because the camera is always a bit behind the action. I wanted a camera that feels completely connected to the characters. I try to disappear and let the viewers take it all in as their own experience of what’s happening on the screen.

H: Is this why you don’t include interviews?

AN: It’s my way to live cinema. There are directors who can do interviews, such as Marcel Ophuls or Claude Lanzmann. You have to have the gift. I like to capture what life offers and show what it offers on the big screen.

Collective is now in theaters and available on VOD.

Ela Bittencourt is a critic and cultural journalist, currently based in São Paulo. She writes on art, film and literature, often in the context of social issues and politics.