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‘Collective’ Director on Documentary’s Curious Link to Orson Welles’ 1949 Classic ‘The Third Man’

“It was natural to follow the script that life was writing for us,” Alexander Nanau says of how his acclaimed Oscar hopeful took shape

In the tradition of “All the President’s Men” and “Spotlight,” “Collective” is a modern detective story about a team of journalists who uncover corruption within a power structure. Though made with the tension and precision of a feature, this Romanian film directed by Alexander Nanau is a documentary — the first, in fact, to be submitted by Romania for the Best International Film Oscar.

The movie begins with a tragic 2015 fire at a nightclub named Colectiv in Bucharest, Romania. From there, Nanau follows a small team of reporters from Gazeta Sporturilor, a daily sports paper of all things, who discover a web of systemic fraud that killed dozens of the fire’s survivors — with a curious echo of the classic 1949 film “The Third Man” starring Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles.

It was a democracy that had been basically taken over by corrupted populist politicians,” Nanau told TheWrap from his home in Romania. “And there was basically only one team of journalists who were unveiling the lies and manipulation.”

In a wide-ranging conversation, Nanau described the urgent need for change that propelled his powerful, observational film.

The nightclub fire killed 26 people on the site but 38 died later in hospitals. Did you sense the story hidden in those basic facts?
I sensed the drama. The survival rate, even with 30% of a body burned, is very high, if the patient is taken care of in a proper way. We knew that the politicians and the health care system were very corrupt, but we could never imagine how deep it went. It was a shock to see this lack of humanity. Even as people were demonstrating in the streets, the political class were manipulating the shocked citizens with lies, which led to so many more deaths.

People died who could have recovered?
Of course. Romania did not have burn units to treat severely burned patients, but [officials] were saying that the hospitals were equipped to treat burn victim patients. They also prohibited the patients to be flown out to other cities and then lied to the parents. And to everybody. 

It’s interesting because it’s corruption, not the fire, which is really the subject of your film.
The fire is what triggered us, but the film is basically about this turning point in Romanian society. The nightclub fire, which could have been prevented, led to the biggest demonstrations in Romania since the 1989 revolutions. And for the first time a new generation took the streets to protest basically their parents generation and the political class that brought corruption to every level of society in Romania. They wanted to get rid of it. 

You shadow both the team of journalists who investigate, led by a man named Catalin Tolontan, and also the country’s new health minister, Vlad Voiculescu. How did you get Voiculescu’s permission?
I interviewed him and we talked about how there is no reason to have secrets within the health care system, because it’s a basic right. He said, “Transparency is the most important thing now.” So it was natural to follow the script that life was writing for us. And we had an arrangement that he could never tell me to stop the camera. We agreed that I would ask people with him if they agree to be filmed. 

There’s a scene where Voiculescu is told that a patient has died, a man in the hospital who we see had maggots in his wounds. What are you thinking as you film a moment like that in real time?
Well, it’s good that I hold the camera because I have to be highly focused all the time, especially when tense things like that are happening in front of the camera. As a journalist, it’s very good when things full of tension are happening, because your subjects forget about you in a way. They can’t control their image anymore. They forget they are being filmed. You can see how honest or how authentic people are. That’s also the thrill of it. 

It’s revealed in the film that disinfectants have been diluted in hospitals, which led to bacterial infections and deaths. You’re aware that in “The Third Man,” Orson Welles’ villain Harry Lime dilutes penicillin?
Oh, it’s a great film. And a German paper wrote, “Harry Lime is just a petty criminal compared to what these guys have done.” It’s something, the way that real life and cinema can blend. These things might seem cliché or kitsch in a screenplay, but when you see them happen for real, you realize that life is overwhelmingly absurd.

The paper also said something like, “We know that Harry Lime, once he was circled in, he killed himself.” And then 10 days later, Dan Condrea (CEO of scandal-plagued Hexi-Pharma, which was accused of watering down disinfectants) killed himself. It was there when I thought “Whoa, this is crazy.” 

Women are a major force in the film, both on the journalism side and as whistleblowers.
Tolontan is perhaps the main force on the journalistic side, but this story would have never been told without (journalist) Mirela Neag and her perseverance. Basically it was her saying, “This could really be true,” while men didn’t really believe it. And all the whistleblowers in this story are women. They’re smarter and more reliable and live much more in the present. Men are living in the past. And these women, especially Dr. Camelia Roiu, the first whistleblower, have changed the course of history in Romania. Society has moved forward as a result of her.