A version of this story about “Collective” first appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
The Oscar category of Best Documentary was once a reliable safe haven for homegrown American films, but in recent years it has gone international. Since 2015, there have been at least one, and often two, non-English-language titles among the nominees. Films like Italy’s “Fire at Sea,” France’s “Faces Places,” and Brazil’s “The Edge of Democracy” have told stories not with an outsider’s eye, but from within the counties and cultures in which they take place.
But no film had ever been nominated for Best Documentary and Best International Feature Film (formerly known as Best Foreign Language Film) until North Macedonia’s “Honeyland” turned that trick last year. This year the doubleheader occurred again with Alexander Nanau’s “Collective,” an accomplishment that was even more notable considering the record-shattering number of titles submitted in both categories.
“We’re very happy,” Nanau said to TheWrap. “The fact that this film is about a difficult subject and can be difficult to watch, that makes it the outcome of two nominations even more of a pleasant surprise.”
From Romania, “Collective” is an artful, non-fiction detective story, following a small team of journalists uncovering massive corruption in the aftermath of a deadly 2015 nightclub fire. The fire killed 27 people, but 37 more died in the months following the tragedy, due to shocking negligence. Using a clear and economical narrative style, the paints a damning picture of fraud and abuse.
Nanau keeps his camera’s eye close on the journalists, along with government officials, including a new minister of health. And he also weaves victims of the fire into the film, both in the form of a family who lost their son to a bacterial infection and Tedy Ursuleanu (seen the in the photo at the top), a survivor of the fire who takes part in a photographic exhibition that shines a poignant light on her injuries.
Nanau told TheWrap that the Oscar attention lends validation to a difficult subject.
“Nothing highlights a film better than the Academy Awards,” he said. “Once you get nominated, the whole world pays a bit more attention. And if you look at the documentary nominees, you’ll see that we really do live in the most creative time in documentary films. Every one of the films is really sophisticated, creative storytelling and so right for the moment.”
“Collective” also made history as the first film from Romania to be nominated in the international category. Titles such as “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” and “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” (both, like “Collective,” critiques of the health care system) had been snubbed in the recent past. The latter film’s omission even led to reforms within the nominating process.
But the strange thing is that Romania was finally nominated after some of those reforms were eliminated because of COVID-era Oscar changes. And the country’s breakthrough came for a film that is so critical of its officials that the government tried to prevent its submission.
“What’s great is that Oscar rules state that a country’s submission has to be done by an independent commission,” Nanau said. “Five film critics submitted a secret ballot. And luckily enough, we were sent the result before the ministry of culture, so we put out a press release right away. When the political sphere learned that we had been selected, they first tried looking through the rules to find a loophole. Then they tried to cut the funding for an Oscar campaign. They were not happy.”
To be sure, the filmmaker told TheWrap’s Steve Pond on the day the Oscar nominations were announced, “I don’t really have these patriotic feelings. We live in an international community, and I think stories have to travel. The pride is more that this story is so crucial for Romanian society, and it was a turning point that changes the perception of investigative journalism and the courage of singular whistleblowers who can really change society.”
Nanau and his team, however, were thrilled by the twofer nomination. “We jumped up and down after the first one,” he said, “and we were hanging from the ceiling after the second,” he said.
Yet Mirela Neag, one of the most tenacious journalists shown in the film, cried upon hearing of the Oscar nominations. “She was happy for the recognition but still sad for the people who were crushed by the system,” Nanau said. “But I hope that more people will see the work she is still doing. Maybe change is possible.”