Colectiv | 2020 | unrated (PG-13 equivalent) | Documentary | directed by Alexander Nanau |1 hr 45 mins | In Romanian With English Subtitles |

Directed with balanced precision by Alexander Nanau, Collective is far and away one of the best journalistic documentaries since the excellent Citizenfour. The film dives deep into a specific accident, immerses itself in the procedure of those investigating it and extrapolates larger themes that reverberate beyond it and have become even more relevant in the year’s since. As much as I  rally against the critics at for their constant insistence to turn film reviews over to their own political rants – such as the inherent serious political nature of Collective that the nature of the situation is completely interwoven with it’s filmmaking. You’ve been warned.

In 2015, a Romanian heavy metal night club called “Colectiv” caught fire, a freak accident that over the next few months would drop a series of dominos and collapse the Romanian healthcare system. The film opens with harrowing video from inside the club, of a spark in the lighting rig at the top,  the band yelling that the resulting pyrotechnic “isn’t part of the show”, and the resulting stampede of a crowd without enough exits. A camera dropped in the floor captures the flames engulfing the crowd overhead. 27 people are killed and 180 injured and it’s in the injured where the story picks up. Over the next few months 37 more people will die in the hospital, as it turns out from burn wounds that should have fully recovered from. This inspires a group of journalists from a sports paper to investigate why, soon nurses and whistleblowers start coming out, the Ministry of Health promptly resigns and puts an activist in charge and the head of a pharmaceutical company that provided the drug used to prevent burn infections ends up dead in a suspicious car accident.

One of the journalists at the center of the film is Catalin Tolontan, whose group uncovers the first devastating domino to drop – that the drug supposedly used to prevent burn infections is being diluted. Behind it all is a paper trail of bribes, fake invoices, greedy doctors and hospital administration and corruption from Romanian’s Socialist Democrat party. This section of the film hums like All the President’s Men, down in the procedural grime of pouring through stacks of paperwork, sitting in conference rooms and trying to get answers to basic questions at a press conference. In America, where actual investigative journalism hasn’t been practice in years, this is invigorating to watch. It also looks like fun, why wouldn’t someone in journalism right now want to probe into why things happen the way they do and solve a mystery. Why is there no nexus between journalists who simply became stenographers and editorialists and the rise in true crime obsession and the mystery solving curiosity that came with it?

Then the film turns over to, Vlad Voiculescu, the human rights activist who was appointed Health Minister in the middle of the night and gets one disaster after another dropped into his lap.  The situation ends up pitting Talontan and Voiculescu against each other in press conferences, each trying to get to the truth in their own way. Nanau smartly sits in the middle and observes with a fly-on-the-wall camera style. Everything the movie says about the bribery and bureaucracy that infected the Romanian government healthcare system it does so entirely through actions that unfold. It stands as the exact opposite of Michael Moore’s 2004 pro-Healthcare film – a movie I actually enjoy – Sicko. Where in that film Moore bends over backwards and manipulates events for the camera to sell us on Single Payer Healthcare, Collective just lays out the story as a cautionary horror against it without explicitly saying a single word.

Collective is so imbedded in Eastern European culture that seeking a solution to the institutional rot outside of the public sector, to contemplate private sector or market solutions to healthcare, isn’t something it can conceive of. It’s interested in rooting out corruption where it sits and it’s solution is to swap out one political party responsible for the bribes for another. The truly specific and prescient thing the movie tackles however are the Technocrats. Technocracy is one of those things that sounded like a wonderful antidote to political gamesmanship a few years ago. A government run by subject matter experts in science, medicine, etc. Like a House of Lords. Collective depicts a side where the experts do not wash away the politics and use government to help society, but are themselves infected by the corruption of politics and use government to help themselves. In America, bureaucratic epidemiologist Anthony Fauci is evidence of this. In the UK, Neil Ferguson and the Imperial College of London is evidence of this and in Collective it’s all the doctors that forge invoices and funnel money to themselves to get accreditations the hospital can’t support are evidence of this.

As a documentary, Collective is a near-masterpiece. An expertly put together, intimately felt and thought provoking piece of blended journalism and cinema that peels away the layers of a specific incident until it finds the universal and wide-ranging impacts underneath. An absolute must-see.


Bonus Review: The Mole Agent

2020 | Unrated (PG-13 equivalent) | Documentary | written & directed by Maite Alberdi | In Spanish with English Subtitles | 1 hr 24 mins |

A quick, utterly charming and adorable documentary, The Mole Agent follows a Sergio Chamey, an 83 year old man plucked out of retirement and grieving the recent loss of his wife, when he volunteers to help a private detective go undercover at a nursing home to investigate if the facility is abusing the mother of a client. Armed with a notepad, smartphone and spy glasses, Sergio goes about his investigation but gets sidetracked in the lives of the women in the home. Mentally and physically stronger than many of the patients, Sergio takes an interest in helping them, talking them through loneliness and grief. One of the ladies falls in love with him and another has heartbreakingly been reduced to a child-like state relieved only when staff calls pretending to be her mother calling her.

It’s a very glossy documentary, with cameras set up to frame everything just right and zero behind-the-curtain explanation for how this footage was obtained. It looks fake while at the same time capturing conversations and emotions that couldn’t have been staged.

Our inciting plot point – the investigation of nursing home abuse – is entirely derailed by the documentary’s interest in learning about the residence of the home, but proves unsatisfying when this doesn’t reach a conclusion. It’s kind of fun to watch the investigator grow increasingly wearily of Sergio’s lengthy reports about the parties in the home or how he was elected “King of the Nursing Home”, but that this story goes absolutely nowhere feels open-ended.

The Mole Agent gets down to that period of advanced age we all say we will be “lucky” to get to, one of celebrating childish things, loneliness, family that doesn’t visit and being endlessly banged and bruised from falls and bumps. Director Maite Alberdi smartly presents it all without commentary, while staging it like a bright, colorful sitcom. It’s entertaining and heart-breaking, pathos and pain, leaving it open for us to reconcile with how we may handle the end of life. Even if there is no “abuse” going on by the staff at the home, all of which seem quite nice, what Alberdi shows what we do to our elders might be worse.