Review by Sean Boelman
Romania’s submission for the Best International Feature category at the Oscars, a difficult one for a documentary to break into, Collective is a new documentary exploring an important political issue. Yet despite the urgency of the topic, in placing his priorities in the wrong place, director Alexander Nanau fails to get the impact he could.
The film tells the story of a group of Romanian journalists who investigate a healthcare fraud that resulted in the deaths of victims with non-fatal injuries from a devastating fire in 2015. There’s clearly a lot more to this story than it seems at first, and as an exposé, it’s quite fascinating and shocking.
That said, the movie’s single biggest shortcoming is that it is presented from the perspective of the journalists investigating the issue rather than the victims. Apart from a few moments that show victims who are trying to rebuild their lives or bringing attention to this issue, this is almost exclusively a journalistic documentary, and as such, it loses much of its emotional impact.
That isn’t to say that these reporters aren’t compelling subjects, but their passion to do the right thing only goes so far in making the viewer connect to the story. The film is bookended by footage featuring the victims of the fire, and they are among the most harrowing moments in the movie, making one wonder why this wasn’t entirely the emphasis.
Nanau does a great job of introducing new information into the story in a way that keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat. The big reveals are stunning and sometimes even disgusting. And while it may be a bit cheap to tell this story as if it was a thriller, it makes for some riveting cinema.
Obviously, the film is directly discussing the shortcomings of the Romanian government, but there’s a lot that can be read here about political corruption in general. Transparency is a hot-button issue in American politics right now, and so it is a story that will definitely be of interest to general audiences, even if it doesn’t initially seem like it would apply.
Nanau mostly tells the story through fly-on-the-wall footage following these journalists in their investigation and in the government hearings that reveal a lot of new information, but he also uses archive materials sparingly. The use of footage from the fire that served as the inciting incident for this crisis is particularly effective.
Collective is a shocking and often truly effective documentary. And even though it inarguably would have been better had it been from the perspective of the victims of the situation, it still makes for an intriguing watch.
Collective screened at the 2020 AFI FEST which ran October 15-22.