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‘Collective’ Documents Corruption and Tragedy in Romania

April 7, 2021
3 min read time

It began with a devastating fire at Colectiv, a Bucharest nightclub, which killed 27 people. Over the course of the next few weeks, more victims who were supposed to be on the road to recovery died, bringing the death toll to 64. This is the catalyst that sent a new generation of Romanians into the streets to demonstrate against corruption, and the basis for Alexander Nanau’s Oscar®-nominated documentary Collective.

The demonstrations are part of what compelled writer-director Nanau to pursue this documentary. Collective follows a team of determined journalists as they uncover the corruption in the Romanian political system, as well as fraud and criminal malfeasance within the medical industry that came to light after the Colectiv tragedy.

“I wanted to make a film to understand power, how human beings in power come to this behavior to be corrupt and step over others’ lives so easily, and in an organized manner,” Nanau says.

There was no chance those in power in the closed and corrupt system that he wanted to document would want to be a part of the film. Knowing he couldn’t get access to those in power meant finding other means.

“Once we saw journalists investigating the cause of the victims’ deaths, we wanted to do an observation documentary,” Nanau recalls, and knew it would be best to do this film through the journalists’ eyes. Before reaching out to the journalists though, he had to prove that he was serious about pursuing this story. Nanau and his team did a lot of their own investigating, which included mapping out stories related to the tragedy in the hospitals, the victims, the parents of those dying, and so on.

When he finally approached the team of journalists he wanted to follow, they could see he was professional about the whole thing, but nevertheless denied his first attempt.

“I asked if we could shadow their work as they investigate – they said no,” Nanau recalls. They claimed that their newsroom had to stay protected; they didn’t want to put colleagues and whistleblowers at risk.

What Nanau and his team had going for them was that the journalists knew who they were, so he felt comfortable asking that if they had new leads in investigations to please let them know. The journalists agreed and, unsure if it would yield any results, they were willing to give it a try.

That’s part of the reality of creating a documentary. What if something falls through?

Nanau and his team were prepared. They looked into options of telling the story through victims, as well as through whistleblowers and other journalists investigating the Colectiv fire and the corruption.

What they found in their research was how everyone struggled to stay true to themselves and stand up for their own beliefs under a society that accepts lies and corruption — journalists fought for integrity, fire victims went against how many would think they would act in that situation, including one victim who found her own form of vengeance moving forward.

Along with the preparation and examining the characters in their story, what really holds the documentary together is just like any other film: Theme. Regardless of the surprises or necessary changes of direction, they had a theme that they set out to follow and stuck to it from outline to editing. It started with a long treatment though, to try to see how the story would build from beginning to end. Even though everything is in constant flux when shooting observationally, it was important to try to formulate a vision.

“The narrative was written on a daily basis by things that happened, so we were open to anything that happened and we understood what had to be filmed and what was needed for the stories,” Nanau says.

Editing is the final stage of storytelling and Nanau’s challenge in finding the narrative was figuring out how to compress a year’s worth of press investigations down to a two-hour film.

Determining what was essential to include required figuring out what was important for the audience to know, and how to convey factors such as how the money was laundered and how it was taken off-shore. Similarly, because it's a film, Nanau also had to keep in mind the characters that made up the story in terms of attitude, intention, and pressures on them to uncover the truth in a society trying to hide it.

“The biggest challenge was to change the main character in the middle of the story. When we had the chance to gain access to the Minister of Health, it came back to the intention to make a movie about power and now we had access to someone,” says Nanau about how the narrative changed while shooting, adding, “It needs this other perspective in order for the story to be complex yet authentic as we perceived it.”

When it comes to the message of the film, Nanau admits, “The message is something you’re looking for when figuring out what holds the film together. I’ve always felt the process is so complex and there are so many layers, that it’s hard to pin down something.”

Like many filmmakers, he suggests not having a message for the audience to take away, but leaving enough space for the viewer to ask their own questions.

For filmmakers interested in entering the documentary space, Nanau suggests letting go and having no expectations.

“Once you understand the theme of the film, you can see how other filmmakers have dealt with different themes. When we were thinking about the pain of parents in losing someone, you can look at other documentaries and see how they were portrayed. For journalists, I had to figure out how to make a film about people sitting around tables. I took inspiration from Spotlight and Ace in the Hole.”

He adds, “I realized I had to find my own way of interacting with people through filmmaking, through the lens of a camera. You have to feel what’s right to do and not repeat what others have done. Don’t get stuck in a style, don’t have a style.”

Collective is nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Documentary Feature and Best International Feature Film, and is available to stream on Hulu.

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