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film review

Cătălin Tolontan in a scene from Alexander Nanau's documentary Collective.Mongrel Media

  • Collective
  • Directed by Alexander Nanau
  • Classification PG; 109 minutes


3 out of 4 stars

Even though certain pockets of the world aren’t exactly enamoured with journalists – hello, White House – cinema has long been engaged in a dramatic and devoted courtship with reporters. Directors make us look good (sometimes as ridiculously good as Robert Redford or Rachel McAdams), and we return the favour by praising their films for their acumen and accuracy.

The mutual love affair is easy to understand: both filmmaking and journalism pivot on the concept of observation, each profession similarly devoted to the act of recording. Winnow the cinematic medium down to the genre of documentary filmmaking, and the goals of both practices blur together even further, revealing a dogged, sometimes quixotic obsession with “The Truth,” whatever that may be.

Director Alexander Nanau follows a group of Bucharest reporters as they uncover one of the most controversial and nauseating government scandals in recent political history.Mongrel Media

Rarely, though, has cinema been so devoted to idealizing the importance of journalism than in Collective. Directed by Alexander Nanau, the new documentary follows a group of Bucharest reporters – working, naturally, for an underdog newspaper – as they uncover one of the most controversial and nauseating government scandals in recent political history. And I don’t mean just Romanian political history, but the legacies of any state operating in the Western world.

It begins with a fire. In 2015, the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest was ravaged by a blaze that killed 27 people and injured 180 others. Dissecting that tragedy alone would have made for a compelling doc: the deadly evening featured the illegal indoor usage of outdoor pyrotechnics, and there was only one exit door that was half-open. But the real horror starts later, when burn victims end up dying in hospital thanks to substandard medical care and diluted disinfectant. The ensuing scandal, which takes as many twists and turns as an airport-paperback thriller, shakes the entire nation of Romania to its core, resulting in all manner of governmental and societal upheaval.

The documentary begins with a fire that killed 27 people and injured 180 others. Pictured is Tedy Ursuleanu.Mongrel Media

But none of this would be a matter of public record if not for a scrappy handful of journalists who decided to investigate the situation. And remarkably, Nanau’s film captures the entirety of the scandal, having followed the staff of the Gazeta Sporturilor (a sports newspaper, of all publications) from the earliest days of the investigation all through the collapse, and then shocking comeback, of the government.

Wisely, Nanau lets the reporters' actions, and the state’s responses, speak for themselves. This is a fly-on-the-wall production, with no talking head interviews or expository narration. Nanau forces his audience to confront the horrors unfolding right in front of them – including the fire itself, which is partially captured in a nightmare-inducing cellphone-video clip – with no need for outside commentary.

Collective is a fly-on-the-wall production, with no talking head interviews or expository narration. Pictured is Vlad Voiculescu.Mongrel Media

Still, in the film’s straight-faced desire to chronicle the controversy in all its myriad complexities, Collective ever so slightly shifts in its second half from gripping exposé to bureaucratic slog. And then there are moments when the film’s subjects utter proclamations that no self-respecting journalist would ever say aloud, were cameras not rolling nearby. But as any documentary filmmaker or reporter knows, observing your subject also changes that subject’s actions. Or their performance, if you will.

That may not be an easy truth to realize, but it is a truth all the same.

Collective is available digitally on demand starting Nov. 20, and opens in select Canadian theatres Nov. 27

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