“The Great Romanian Oscar Hope”

Ioana Uricaru (Middlebury College)

Collective is the first Romanian film to be nominated for an Academy Award – and like Honeyland in 2020, it is nominated in two categories: Best Foreign Language Film and Best Documentary. Director Alexander Nanau also gained a reputation for integrity among Romania’s intellectuals and artists when, in January 2021, he refused a medal from the country’s president, as an indictment against the administration’s lack of support for culture and artists. While there’s genuine joy and pride among Romanians for the film’s success, a question lingers: why has this documentary gained the glamorous Oscar recognition that eluded masterpieces of New Romanian Cinema?

New Romanian Cinema emerged internationally about 15 years ago, proposing a vision of reality that favors attention to the mundane rather than well-worn tools of narrative cinema. Nanau’s Collective is in some ways the documentary counterpart of Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu or Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days: an observational documentary that “simply” records reality, inviting us to notice how fraught, bizarre, infuriating and shocking it is – and how accustomed we’ve become to it. The opening shot, recorded in a nightclub as the stage and the audience of a rock concert are engulfed by flames, is a heart-stopping, quintessential reality that breaks through the screen and, as the director has said makes us understand, viscerally and overwhelmingly, how our lives can spin into tragedy in a matter of seconds. It is at that point, that we become dependent on the society and the systems that we have built (or not). Nanau focuses on the aftermath of this tragedy – 65 people died and dozens more were severely wounded – examining the Romanian health system and how it is (in)capable of fulfilling its mission. The film is crafted to the point that we may forget we’re watching a documentary; it’s almost uncanny in its fluidity, with rounded dramatic scenes, developed characters, and flawless dialogue.

Andrei Gorzo, perhaps the most important contemporary Romanian film critic, hypothesized that what sets this film apart from New Romanian Cinema is its Hollywood- (or American-) friendly angle, by which he means the clarity of a heroic good-vs-evil story. He also remarks – and I agree – that not all its subjects are good candidates for the hero role. Half the film is about investigative journalists, who are enormously compelling, while the other half is about a young and ambitious politician. The lionizing of a sitting minister rings a bit hollow, and eyebrows were raised in doubt and reservation at Minister Voiculescu’s seemingly curated authenticity (“Hi, I’m Vlad” he introduces himself to the press). Likewise, the jab at democracy that concludes the story – the masses inexplicably vote to keep Voiculescu and his party out of power – is oversimplifying to the point of superficiality.

While this choice of hero on the filmmaker’s part doesn’t diminish the impressive accomplishments of the film, it does expose a fault line that threatens any documentary’s claim to reality. In the case of Collective, contextual complexity is literally “missing”. The problems of the Romanian health system go way beyond localized corruption and incompetence; one of them is the massive exodus of medical personnel to Western Europe. Thousands of rural French hospitals, for instance, are staffed with Romanian physicians, trained at the expense of Romanian taxpayers. The Social Democrat administration, indicted in Collective, was the first that substantially raised medical personnel’s salaries trying to stop this hemorrhage. If you felt a pang of revolt at the end of the film, rest assured: M. Voiculescu’s party came back into government and he became, again, the Minister of Health (although he’s not a health professional) presiding over a disastrous test-and-trace COVID strategy, a dangerous understaffing of hospitals and a series of in-hospital incidents that endangered patients and led to several deaths. Complicating his heroic framing even further, Voiculescu was recently dismissed by the Prime Minister in response to his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

There’s a partially justified fear that Romania’s national health system is being compromised, tarnished, and dismantled so that it can be privatized and turned into a for-profit operation, something that already happened to its steel mills and manufacturing industries. Therefore, revelations about the rot in the system can simultaneously be true and viewed with suspicion – not because they don’t exist, but because they might be politically manipulated. Like its other Eastern-European and Balkan neighbors, Romania is a complicated, traumatized country that runs on emotions, flair, and surprising priorities. If Romania were a person, she would exhaust several therapists – I have counted 20 ways of expressing in Romanian that somebody has died, and about 15 to say “bribe”, while I can’t find a single word that means “to cope”. Occasionally, this tapestry is torn by events such as the December 1989 anti-communist uprising, but as Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest shows, these impulses are eventually flattened back into the ancestral terrain. Films of the New Romanian Cinema are quite genuinely reflecting the country’s sometimes exasperatingly complex weltanschauung, while Collective speaks more to the American ethos of Manichean clarity. Alexander Nanau, who lived his formative years in Germany, brought a perspective that maps more closely onto an Anglo-Saxon pragmatic clarity, but it’s sometimes identified as slightly off-base by Romanian viewers. The need to find an American-style hero is not well served by M. Voiculescu – but it might have already made a difference in Romania’s quest for the elusive Oscar recognition. For more than a century, the lack of a national Nobel prize has been feeding a national complex, reinforcing our notion that we’re just hopelessly, desperately unique. Perhaps an Oscar nomination will go some distance to disaffecting us of this idea.

“Narrative Hope, and its Refusal”

Daniel Marcus (Goucher College)

Collective tells a classic story of government and corporate corruption investigated by crusading reporters and one honest government investigator. This narrative fits the mold of many fiction films that celebrate intrepid heroes (and occasionally heroines, as in Erin Brockovich) who confront established authorities in the name of honesty and the public good. Collective upends generic expectations by featuring a frustrating resolution in which the offending institutions simply chug on, seemingly impervious to the threats of those who wish to hold them accountable for the deaths they have caused. While Collective shares a narrative structure with stirring fictional exposures of corruption, its status as documentary anchors its resolution to the political realities of contemporary Romania, which refuse neat and celebratory endings.

Of course, many documentaries end on sour notes, but Collective stands out for having set up a familiar narrative dynamic usually leading to a potential triumph for its heroes, in keeping with Classic Hollywood Style and other commercial entertainments. In denying the audience a feel-good resolution, Collective shares a pessimism displayed by fiction productions made in times of pervasive cynicism about public institutions, such as 1969’s Z and the Bush era’s The Wire. This pessimism also marked many of the feature films of the Romanian New Wave, including The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, 12:08 East of Bucharest, and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.

As a documentarian shooting during an ongoing scandal, director Alexander Nanau could not know when the project began whether the exposure of public corruption and private malfeasance would succeed in toppling the dominant elites of Romania’s political system. There were some grounds for optimism: the President, from the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD), had just fallen, as a result of public disgust at the incompetence of the regulatory and medical systems that resulted in 64 deaths from a fire at the Colectiv night club in 2015. As the scandal deepens, a temporary government with more international/EU perspectives among its leaders takes office while new elections are prepared. The film moves to following one new official, Minister of Health Vlad Voiculescu, as he tries to reform hospital procurement systems built on bribery, while he faces entrenched resistance from the ministry bureaucracy. Rather than showing a traditional, dramatic confrontation with the leaders of the racket as justice is served, the film’s (anti-) climax occurs on election night, when the PSD is returned to power, and Voiculescu’s hopes to reform the system are dashed. The drama dribbles away, as the system re-establishes itself.

The primary mode of the film is observational cinema; the camera follows investigative reporters and the government reformer as they meet informants and hold meetings and press interviews to discuss the scandal. Without conducting their own extensive interviews, the producers are dependent on their subjects’ conversations and overheard media reports to explain the situations they are investigating, and the film benefits from its heroes’ articulate and heartfelt discussions of the events. This is very much in the tradition of 1960s direct cinema, in which its practitioners’ fabled pledges of non-interference in the scenes depicted were enabled by the performative and charismatic practices of many of its subjects, from politicians to musicians. A filmmaker with John Kennedy, Marlon Brando, or Bob Dylan at the center of the frame may feel there is no need for extensive voiceovers or animated graphics. In Collective’s case, it is less the personal charisma of its subjects that keeps the film compelling than their narrative functions and generic stations – the crusading journalist, the young government reformer.

In keeping these subjects at the center of the film’s attention, the producers eschew providing broader context about Romanian politics beyond its endemic corruption. Viewers outside Romania may therefore be shocked at the election results that returned the PSD to power. No explanation is provided beyond Voiculescu stating that election turnout was very low among younger voters. His lack of explanation may belie a naivete about bases for political support or a technocratic belief that simply being honest, competent, and holding Romanian institutions to broader European scientific standards for health care should be sufficient to maintain power. The government’s inability to build support during its short time in office may demonstrate the limits of reformers’ appeal in Eastern Europe, despite widespread cynicism about traditional power blocs in these nations, as well as the political problematics of the government’s tilt toward neoliberal, privatizing solutions.

These possibilities, however, can only be inferred from a viewing of the film and by seeking out other sources, because Collective’s focus remains on the issue and investigators of corruption. This emphasis on the simple conflict between greed and public health usually creates audience expectations of a straightforward happy ending which the political realities refuse to produce. Or perhaps this type of optimistic expectation is a marker of American audiences, whose own distrust of political institutions is balanced by their viewing of a preponderance of happy endings in contemporary feature films which tell similar stories. Collective’s lack of a successful resolution despite clear designations of heroes and villains causes its narrative tropes to crash into the political realities of post-Communist Europe.

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