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Director Alexander Nanau talks about his whistleblowing documentary “Collective”, and how the tragedy ...
2020-08-15 09:00:00

Societies Need More Time to Change
An Interview with Alexander Nanau

Photo courtesy of HBO Europe
Societies Need More Time to Change
Societies Need More Time to Change

It all started on 30th October 2015 when the popular Bucharest nightclub Colectiv burned to the ground as a consequence of careless use of pyrotechnics at a concert. Although the place was approved by the proper authorities, there were not sufficient fire exits. Thus, 27 young people died in the fire, while 180 suffered heavy burns and injuries. As a result, people all over Romania took to the streets to protest against the corruption and gross negligence of those responsible. Actually, it started much earlier, as the Colectiv tragedy and its subsequent victims (37 of the survivors died during the following months, many due to mishandling by ill-prepared hospitals) revealed countless skeletons in the nation’s closet. Nevertheless, Alexander Nanau, the director of the brilliant whistleblowing documentary Collective, which chronicles the social and political turmoil in Romania, sees light at the end of the tunnel.

Read in 11 minutes

Dariusz Kuma: In the documentary, the Colectiv tragedy is a fait accompli, and rather a starting point for a journalistic investigation and government reshufflings caused by the social uproar. Was it the fire that made you shoot the film, or what happened after?

Alexander Nanau: In the beginning, we were triggered by the Colectiv incident. It was a national tragedy and a huge shock for everyone. Literally a traumatic event for the whole country. Then, when people took to the streets, myself and Hanka Kastelicová from HBO Europe felt that something new was happening in the immature Romanian democracy. That the young generation was finally claiming back their society and their state from a corrupt and inefficient political class. Those were the biggest demonstrations since the revolution of the 1990s. In a way, we began working on Collective to understand how this huge tragedy could initiate a potentially positive change. Everything else basically took shape during filming. We looked for interesting characters we could follow, people through whose eyes we could reflect on the whole Romanian society, though without doing any direct interviews. I strongly believe in the power of observational documentaries. I don’t like people explaining their worldviews to the camera.

Cătălin Tolontan, the journalist whose team first uncovered the corruption in and around Romanian hospitals, was obviously the right character for the film, though I can’t help but wonder why the whistleblowers chose him. I mean, he worked for a sports paper.

Tolontan was an acclaimed investigative journalist with over 20 years of experience. His area of expertise was the world of sport, but he was known for bringing down a corrupt sport minister and a number of football businessmen. When he and his team started their own investigation after the Colectiv fire, it wasn’t anything out of ordinary. They were the first ones to publicly declare that the government was lying and that Romanian hospitals are ill-prepared to treat patients with burns. It was his team who found out that the government did not perform surgeries on burn victims in a newly-opened burn hospital, as they were saying. It was his team who learned that firemen had approved the Colectiv club and were lying when they claimed that they did not even know it existed. Trust is a very powerful weapon, and he and his team gained a reputation for it with many years of hard work.

Still, it is striking that highly corrupted healthcare officials did not do much to stop him.

That was also connected to the fact that he was only a sport journalist. The healthcare officials didn’t take him seriously. They thought he would ask some basic questions and leave them alone. It probably didn’t even cross their minds that he would go all the way with the investigation. But he did, though the pressure of passing such bleak information – that people working in healthcare and dozens of politicians show such a lack of humanity – was enormous.

Choosing the journalist was an obvious choice, but at one point you change the focus to the then Minister of Health Vlad Voiculescu.

The decision was pretty organic. When we learned that Voiculescu was appointed to be the next Minister of Health, we knew it was a golden opportunity to go where nobody had gone before – into the proverbial heart of darkness. Voiculescu was a known patient activist as well as a health policy expert who wanted to initiate change within this highly corrupt institution. I approached him and explained the project, and he granted us the right to film in the Ministry. By that time, he was the second Minister of Health of the technocrat government [the Cioloș Cabinet – ed. note] that replaced the Social Democrats after the Colectiv fire. The first Minister of Health was completely crooked, so it was a huge risk for Voiculescu to agree to be filmed all of the time. And I mean all the time. But one of his main goals was to seek transparency in governmental actions, and he wanted to show he had nothing to hide.

Photo courtesy of HBO Europe
Photo courtesy of HBO Europe

When watching Collective, I could not help but think that it’s absurd how many similarities there are between Poland and Romania, both in how the system corrupts officials elected to serve others and in the mentality of people who sometimes do everything not to see the lies and mistakes of the government. It is as if post-communist societies share the same trait.

This is unfortunately what is also happening all over the Western world, although it’s probably more visible in ex-communist countries. For a number of reasons, including the fact that the education systems in these countries are still a bit inferior and oriented towards generic results. Especially the media education. But I think the most important aspect of why the people are so easily manipulated into believing the lies the governments tell them is that they have many fears and complexes that they want addressed. Among them, the feeling of inferiority to rich countries, which is so strong that people need someone to protect them and give them identity. That’s what populists always promise.

You provide a brilliant example in Collective. After the tragedy, the government made assurances that the medical care in Romania is as good as in Germany and the people believed it. All it took was to repeat a lie over and over again – like naming Germany was enough of an assurance.

It’s because people connect the West with quality. At least in Romania. It’s interesting how this mechanism works in practice. When some populists need to convince the nation that something is of great quality, they say “it’s like in Germany!” But when they need votes, they shout that they will do everything in their power to protect the Romanian national interest and its citizens from the corruption of the West. It’s sad to see people fall into this trap all the time.

Everything you depict in the film is all the more terrifying because of the choice to include the footage from the Colectiv fire. The viewer observes, in horror, how the club turned into a ball of fire in a matter of seconds, with people running in panic for their lives. It’s a harsh thing to watch, knowing that many of those on screen vanished some moments later.

Believe me when I say we had long discussions about whether to include the footage. Three of the cameraman who filmed the event did die in the fire. Mihai Grecea was one of the cameraman who survived and later joined our team. He nearly died in Colectiv and was in a coma for quite a while. In the end, I decided to include the footage not only to show what happened in Colectiv, but also to reinforce one of the film’s themes – that our lives can change in a matter of seconds, and if that happens, we become dependent on the society we are living with. If we don’t care whether this society works well, it will kill us, even if we don’t think about it when we’re not in danger. This is one of the main reasons why we need a society that functions in the interest of the people. Protecting lives should be the most important. I think many people realized this after the COVID pandemic did on a global scale exactly what the Colectiv fire did in Romania. Our lives were turned upside down in no time, and there was no going back to what was before.

While we’re at it, how has the Romanian government coped with the pandemic? It happened only a few years after the Colectiv tragedy, which laid bare the poor quality of healthcare in Romania. Was the lesson learned?

Sadly, no... The government reacted pretty much like all governments. They knew something bad was coming our way, but didn’t prepare enough for what really happened when the pandemic hit us. Then, there were dramatic promises concerning spending a lot of money on healthcare. The officials heading the pandemic crisis response team went public on TV and said they should be left alone, meaning above the law, to work efficiently. For our greater good, etc. After a while, as I’m sure you already suspect, we found out that those people spent millions of Euros through shady companies and mafia-like structures, spending our money without public tenders. Did it stop the pandemic? As we speak, it’s July 2020, we have the highest number of daily cases ever, and it is still rising. But despite this, government is still trying to play the game of “trust us, we know what we are doing.” They did not instruct doctors on how to treat COVID at all, and no state health structure is properly prepared or organized. In reality, in this chaos, they are just trying to steal as much money as possible.

Photo courtesy of HBO Europe
Photo courtesy of HBO Europe

The same scenario seems to be happening in Poland.

I think it’s similar in many countries around the globe. It’s the same in America and the UK. They recently had a series of articles in The Guardian detailing how the government did exactly the same thing – spent dozens of millions without any oversight, but with the help of shady companies. The Romanian government is now ruled by the Liberals, but they do the same thing as the Social Democrats, so this is the best proof that we need a systemic change, not a reshuffling of people in power.

In Collective, you show that neither the elected politicians nor the society work in favour of the people. How should people start to believe that change is even possible?

Well, the truth is that societies need more time to change than individuals. They require community experience – or trauma like with COVID – to understand. In Romania, the Colectiv fire was a turning point. The 2016 elections were utterly terrible, just like all around the world, with Brexit in the UK, Bolsonaro in Brazil, etc. We were supposed to get rid of nepotist, corrupt dinosaurs. The change, as you see partly in Collective, didn’t happen. People felt betrayed, also by the technocrat government, and we had the highest emigration numbers of the younger generation after Syria, which is a war-torn country. The anger was so intense that people said they were leaving because they didn’t want to lose time in a country full of impostors and corruption. But then other people woke up and said: we want our society back. And from 2016 onwards we have built a strong civil society that didn’t exist before. An NGO called Dăruiește Viață started to build hospitals from the money we all donated. Something that the government didn’t do in 30 years. During the European elections in 2018, we had the highest outcome of voters, which resulted in corrupt politicians losing their seats. To add to that, the number of whistleblowers increased after Colectiv was released in cinemas and on HBO and HBO GO.

You yourself are a whistleblower. Making Collective and living with all of this hopelessness for a long time was surely an arduous task. And yet the film has been circling the world for almost a year now and opened many viewers’ eyes.

You are right to an extent, as I could do it only because of the courage of the true whistleblowers, some of whom let me film the moment they blew the whistle. They were afraid of losing their jobs, or even lives, but trusted me. It’s the courage of the journalists who let me in the newsroom. It’s the courage of the young minister who let the camera inside the building where many corrupt deals have been done over the years. It’s the courage of the victims and their parents who let me film their tragedy so that others don’t have to suffer like they do. All I had to do was to do my job very well and stand up to the trust these people gave me. As a storyteller, I can only ask questions and try to connect the viewer to the story as much as possible. And I think that when you see such incredible people fighting to get the truth out, it gives you hope. At least it gives me hope. We might think that there’s nothing to be done, that everyone around us is crooked, but there are many more people like us who want to do the right thing.

Photo courtesy of HBO Europe
Photo courtesy of HBO Europe

Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.


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Dariusz Kuźma

is a film journalist, translator, regular contributor to the Camerimage film festival and one of its selectors. He has a degree in English Studies and American Studies. He is passionate about world cinema and unconventional television series. His articles have been published by numerous Polish magazines and online media.