Interview: Alexander Nanau on the News Breaking Through the System in “Collective”

There was never much warning for Alexander Nanau and his team working on “Collective” when Catalin Tolontan, a reporter at the Sports Gazette in Bucharest, was about to break a big story. It was a condition of the access to make a film about the journalist that the cameras be as unobtrusive as possible with no coordination between the newspaper and filmmakers regarding their reporting, meaning that besides having their suspicions from the breadcrumbs they captured on camera when following Tolontan and others, they would learn the full freight of what they were working on when the public did, though on occasion Tolontan did tip off Nanau when such a story might drop, given that he would have to make the rounds on TV to promote it.

“It was a time full of adrenaline all the time because we knew things were happening and we every day will be a challenge to get access,” says Nanau. “Filming in our local Fox News[-esque TV network] was the same, so [Tolontan] told me in the morning that in the evening, he will have this thing [on TV] and it was like, “Oh, it’d be great if I could film that.” And everybody said, “Oh, you can have the footage from TV,” and I said, “No, no, it’s very different if I film it from inside, and if I film things from my lens rather than just see [it on TV].”

It wasn’t hubris that was behind Nanau’s insistence that he capture his own footage, but rather the knowledge behind every sharp observation that is made in “Collective” that nothing is to be taken at face value. Named after the nightclub that became the site of a horrific fire that initially took the lives of 27 people and injuring 146 more in the fall of 2015, the film chronicles a tragedy that was far worse than it ever needed to be as most in positions of authority are revealed to be more interested in self-preservation than saving lives, taking cover from responsibility for the errant pyrotechnic display that set the club ablaze to protecting the rich CEO of a powerful pharmaceutical firm HexiPharma for sending diluted disinfectants to hospitals to treat burn victims.

Little to none of this would’ve come to light had it not been for the reporting of the Sports Gazette, and Nanau takes things one step further, showing how the investigative journalism still manages to cut through the noise and drive news cycles as the Ministry of Health attempts, at first, to hide corruption and mismanagement in the department and then tries to rebrand itself with a new leader Vlad Voiculescu, who surprisingly welcomes in Nanau’s cameras to chart the response. Even with a seemingly conscientious public health advocate in charge, the government’s concerns with appearances seem to far outweigh actually tending to those afflicted and “Collective” tracks one unbelievable twist after another, saving a final one in recently recognized by Romania for the powerful work of journalism it is to represent the country this year at the Oscars in the Foreign Language category. On the eve of its release in the U.S., Nanau spoke this gripping nonfiction thriller, capturing a story that’s only become more resounding around the world after he finished shooting and not losing sight of those whose lives will continue to be touched by this tragedy.

What led you to the Sports Gazette and Catalin Tolontan?

In the aftermath of the fire, which was a national tragedy, the whole press somehow failed because the authorities used this trauma to manipulate [the public], saying “Our health system is the best. We’re going to handle it. We’re on top of it. We can rescue all the burn patients.” We understood later that they could not – there were not enough burn units in Romania to do that, and Tolontan and his team were actually the only ones after three days who said, “No, no, no, wait a minute. There’s something very fishy.” They started to uncover huge lies. The fire department said they didn’t know the club existed when in fact they authorized it – he exposed that. And then there was a newly opened burn unit in Romania and they said the burn victims are getting surgery there, but he found out the burn unit closed and it was only inaugurated several months earlier to justify all the investments the hospital manager made there to get his bribe. We understood, “Okay, he’s going after the health care system,” and that led us to get in contact with them because before that, he was known as the most ardent investigative journalist in Romania, but he was investigating corruption in the sports world.

In order to find him as a subject, I understand that you put together a team of investigative journalists of your own. Beyond narrowing down your subjects, did they help with how you wanted to structure this?

It definitely shaped things because with my own development team, we basically went in all directions and pulled bios and all implications of the case, and [although] we narrowed it down, Antoaneta Opris, who’s the co-dramatist of the film, and I started to think about how could one structure a story in which you have all these different characters – a journalist, victims, maybe a doctor at that time, and even maybe a story of bacteria, trying to see how that could be a symbol of what’s happening.

Obviously, you know the details after the fact, but was it difficult to convey the work of journalism in the film?

It was difficult in so far as I had to start understanding myself what they are doing. In the beginning, although they finally agreed to let us film them, they would not disclose to us what they are after, so in order to protect the ongoing investigation, I could film, but I had to start putting the puzzle pieces together myself because while I was filming, I didn’t know we were filming something about a company that is diluting

We were just following them, and then I started to understand. It was complicated in editing because we gathered all the material [the journalists] did, reporting on the subjects that are in the film in order to understand it and all their perspectives and to make sure we’re not doing something wrong, so we are staying true to the facts and staying objective and don’t get taken [in a specific direction] too much by the fact that we followed these journalists.

Was there a direction this took you were particularly surprised by?

The whole film. [laughs] But when the disinfectant [scandal with Hexi Pharma] came, I’m like it can’t be true. And then I remember exactly how Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in Germany wrote about about the case Romania i and compared it to “The Third Man,” Carol Reed’s film where you have Harry Lime, played by Orson Welles, who is actually selling diluted penicillin. In the end, he kills himself when he’s circled in the canals of Vienna, and I remember we were discussing that and then 10 days later, the CEO of HexiPharma kills himself as we were comparing him to Harry Lime in “The Third Man.”

When Vlad takes office, do your ideas change when the Ministry of Health became more accessible?

It changed so far as that I thought there was a chance to change perspectives [in the film] because the first minister [of health] that the journalists bring down was also a technocrat – he should’ve been fine, but he was also part of the system, so he says. “I am the system.” And then I heard that they’re interviewing this patients’ activist and I thought [this may be an opportunity] to really get into the heart of darkness and see how it looks. A week after [he was on the job], I managed to get a meeting with him and explained what I’m doing. Because he was not a politician and because he didn’t owe anything to anybody, he said, “Listen, transparency is one of our main goals. We think that there shouldn’t be any secrets in the Ministry of Health because health belongs to the citizens and it is their basic right to know what’s happening here, so we’re going to open up.”He took this risk to let me stay at his side with a camera, which was unspoken in this cave of corruption and we went through it.

You find a really nice way to keep the presence of those affected by the fire with check-ins on Tedy, someone who lost her arms in the tragedy. How did you find her?

We met and spoke to many of the people that survived the fire and recuperating, and the question was how do you show the different stories and layers of pain in such a tragedy and of resilience that was apparent with the victims. In the end, as hard as it was, we chose to show Tedy, [as well as] the parents of [one of the victims of the club fire] that we show at the grave, because as a storyteller, you’re looking at so how do these people manage the fact that this could destroy their whole life, but because they survive, is there enough resilience to get over it and don’t let it poison them and that’s what Tedy was, in a way, representing. She seemed to say, “I’m not going to let these people destroy my life. This is me now. It’s still me inside me. I’m looking different on the outside. I lost friends, but I’m going to take my life in my own hands again.”

What’s it been like seeing the reaction to this around the world?

We had a really great response in the first month after Venice and we realized that everywhere in the world, the audience had the same reaction. It didn’t matter if it was a more or less developed society or richer or less rich. People had the same deep-seated fear of we’ve lost control over our own lives, and you could feel the fury about this. There was always debate about whether or not we should show the fire in the film, but for me, it was always we have to show how our lives can change in seconds. And what is happening now with how the COVID hit, the film now seems like a symbol for how it can change in such a way that we will depend on the functioning of the society that you’re living in [as a whole] and our governments and how professional they are.

I can only watch it from the side, in a way honored and humbled that our team managed to make a film that hits such a core thing about our world today and from now [the film] has its own life. We just have done our job and now we watch it, but it’s great that people are connecting with it and it inspires people. After we released it in Romania, the number of whistleblowers journalists [started hearing from] every day got 10 times higher.

“Collective” will open in virtual cinemas on November 20th. A full list of ways to see it is here.

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