The words that come to mind, upon watching the enraging yet unmissable Romanian documentary Collective, are from the famous monologue by Orson Welles’ Harry Lime in The Third Man. Lime and an old school chum (Joseph Cotten) are atop a ferris wheel, looking down at the ant-sized people below:
“Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man.”
Director Alexander Nanau demonstrates that Lime’s murderous game — the dilution of antibiotics for fast profit — survives in a real life form.
The film takes its title from a catastrophe. Just before Halloween 2015 there was a fire at the Collectiv nightclub in Romania’s capital Bucharest. The Metallica-like group Goodbye to Gravity was in the middle of a protest song about the corruption of the government. That’s when the nightclub burst into a fast-moving inferno that killed 27 patrons on the spot.
But the trouble wasn’t over after the fire was extinguished. In the burn wards of Romania’s government hospitals, more than three dozen people perished from opportunistic infections caused by pyocyanic bacteria. Apparently, Romania has the worst stats for post-surgical infections in the entire EU. An average of 12,000 a year die, mostly those not rich enough or lucky enough to get transferred to hospitals in Western Europe.
The number of patients from the Collectiv emergency worsened the situation. In one case, burn patients had to double up in a bed. Others had sheets pulled over their heads to keep the blood from grossing out the hospital’s attendants. And one sufferer was so badly neglected by the nurses that he was infested with maggots.
The Gazeta Sportului, a 96 year old tabloid specializing in sports coverage, did the best expose of this scandal. Editor Caitalin Tolontan, a dogged middle-ager with close-cropped greying hair, followed the money to the Hexi-Pharma company. This firm vended hospital-grade antiseptics — watered down to a tenth of their intended strength. Dan Condrea, the CEO of Hexi-Pharma, had off-shore accounts in the money launderer’s paradise of Cyprus. In the middle of the investigation, Condrea died under cloudy circumstances: maybe suicide, maybe misadventure, maybe murder. Further delving by the Gazeta showed that the Romanian internal police had previously investigated the matter of the diluted antiseptics. They did nothing.
The pursuit of truth here is as exciting as a fictional thriller; even Tolontan’s right-hand assistant Mirela Neag says: “This story is so mind-blowing that we look crazy.” It is a crazy kind of story. Romania survived the most savage Communist regime west of Cambodia, and then became a kleptocracy rotten to the floorboards. National expectations are so low that even Tolontan’s son asked him why he didn’t just back off and let the doctors do their job.
The only question was in which direction the backlash would come from, and who would be the high-placed grafters’ media lapdogs. On TV, Tolontan gets called a hothead and a rabble-rouser who hounded the executive Dan Condrea to his grave.
The Social Democrats, the party temporarily out of power, brazen out the scandal. Investigations show that there wasn’t a hospital in Bucharest capable of carrying out lung transplants, with no pneumology specialists for the operation’s aftercare. Anyone seeking such an operation would have a better chance of survival if they went to Germany or Austria. Like every party politician who ever got caught with their pants down, Bucharest’s mayor, Gabriela Firea, waved the flag. Firea went on television to warn about the alleged crisis of perfectly transplantable Romanian lungs being sent over the border; presumably, once in Germany, those lungs would no longer be able to breathe free.
Tolontan sums up his job: “There is no final goal, I think, in this profession… When the press bow down to the authorities, the authorities will mistreat the citizens.”
Midway through, Collectiv’s focus changes from watching Tolontan and his staff to studying government efforts to find out what was going on. The Minister of Health resigned at the beginning of the scandal; he was replaced by an assistant, a novice named Vlad Voiculescu. At first we underestimate Voiculescu. He looks like a young ineffectual patsy. In print, Tolontan mocks the way this eager youngling introduces himself at a press conference with, “I am Vlad.”
The surprise is that this official has a conscience and is indeed ready to join the clean-up effort. One of the heroes of Collective is a slender, elegant lady named Tedy Ursuleanu. She became the disfigured face of the hospital scandal, posing for art photos that revealed her scars and her missing fingers. Voiculescu was so impressed with Ursuleanu’s indomitability that he put her portrait on the wall of his office, just as a reminder of his duties.
The Romanian Ministry of Health’s efforts reveal that hospital management was a political plum. Through bribery, it was easy to get the right certificates to run a hospital and then to leech its revenues. We hear a secret tape of one administrator, a Professor Secureanu, shouting like a drunken dock worker at his underlings, reminding them that they serve at his pleasure. A whistleblowing female doctor, seething with bitterness, describes to Minister Voculescu how well off patients got a different level of care. Doctors bribed their managers to get assigned to these more affluent wards… in hopes of bribes of their own.
This brave documentary is done in a form of cinéma vérité, the camera observing the sheer disgrace of it all without direct questioning from interviewers. Via Nanau’s expert direction, we learn by watching conferences, by observing reporters’ vigils in plain white vans outside the homes of well-off thieves.
Collective reflects the muckraking qualities of the much-missed Romanian new wave; it picks up where 2005’s The Death of Mr. Lazarsecu ended, that fictional story of a dying old man shifted from one overbooked and uncaring Bucharest hospital to another.
The relevance to America of this chronicle of arrogance and graft goes without saying. Remember the Ghost Ship fire, the wretched excesses of for-profit medicine, as well as the elections that don’t seem to change a thing. To describe the mess, minister Vlad Voiculescu has to resort to the American idiom: “They don’t give a fuck.”
Now streaming on Amazon, YouTube, GooglePlay and virtually through the BAMPFA in Berkeley and the Smith Rafael.