On October 30, 2015, a fire broke out during a rock concert at Colectiv, a nightclub in Bucharest (Romania). The tragedy left 64 people dead. Among these deaths, a large number, due to nosocomial infections – therefore contracted during hospitalizations – could have been avoided. In the days following the tragedy, major demonstrations took place, denouncing the corruption and the particularly heavy human toll. This mobilization led to the resignation of the government of Prime Minister Victor Ponta. The documentary Collective Affair, released on Wednesday, recounts these crucial days and weeks in the history of contemporary Romania. As scandals and political upheavals unfolded, Alexander Nanau followed journalist Catalin Tolontan during his investigations. The whole, which has the airs of a breathtaking thriller, is amazed as the revelations of massive corruption progress. 20 Minutes met the director in October 2019 at the La Roche-sur-Yon Festival (Vendée) from where the documentary left with the Special Prize of the International Jury. Interview.
When and why did you decide to embark on this documentary?
After the fire, there was a turning point in Romanian society. For weeks, we have seen in the streets the biggest demonstrations since the revolution of December 1989. It was clear that a change was taking place in Romania. People said: “We have had enough of corrupt politicians, we want to change political class. It had to be told in a certain way, but a way had to be found to show it in a documentary that observes [«observative documentary »]. It is the best tool to engage the viewer beyond traditional interviews and explaining things. From there, we thought about how to implement this observation. When we saw that a journalist was starting to investigate the health system because all these people died in hospital for no reason, we thought that could be a good starting point. It also helps to understand the role of journalism in society, the journalist being the link between the population and power.
You came at the right time to film this story in motion. Did you expect what was about to be revealed?
Not at all. No one expected it. Journalists from Sports Gazette didn’t let us film from the start, they were reluctant. They didn’t want a camera in their newsroom and wanted to protect their employees, their sources, their work. With my research team, we were well prepared and after a while we knew as much as the journalists. They ended up trusting us when they saw how seriously we took it all. One day, Catalin Tolontan called us to say: “Okay, let’s try! We have a big investigation in front of us, we don’t know what we’ll find, we think it will be huge. This turned out. But he didn’t want to tell us exactly what was going on. When we were shooting, we didn’t know what we were filming. Then it all started to go so fast with all this vortex of revelations about this corruption that with the reporter we just had to ride the wave of incredible things happening around us.
Surprisingly, it was a sports newspaper that brought out the revelations …
There is an investigative press in Romania but this particular team around Tolontan is, say, one of the most effective. They are sports journalists, they started to investigate the health system after the fire. Before, they only investigated the sports world. They were rather famous because they exposed corrupt sports ministers who were later convicted and jailed.
At times, the documentary feels like a thriller. During the editing, did you try to create or accentuate the suspense?
What I’m looking for and what I’m doing is cinema-verite. My main goal, when it comes to storytelling, is to make the viewer experience things the same as me and the protagonists. I just try to reflect reality so that the audience experiences it as if they were in the shoes of the characters.
You change your point of view during the documentary by following the new Minister of Health, Vlad Voiculescu. Was it obvious to tell his story?
The idea came naturally because, after journalists brought down the Minister of Health [Nicolae Banicioiu] and that we showed the fight with the politicians, with the health system on the side of the journalists, I said to myself that it would be interesting to follow the same story from an opposite perspective. There were rumors of Vlad as Minister of Health, that he was quite independent, that he could make a change, so I called him to explain what I wanted to do. About ten days later, he agreed to meet me. He did something brave, he knew that it was by being transparent that he would mark his difference from others and that people would know that he was not part of the corrupt system.
The documentary ends by citing the victory of the social democrats in Romania. What happened next ?
The health care system has not changed because the Social Democrats, who are the post-communist party, are the epitome of corruption and incompetence. Everything got worse. But in their exercise of power over the past three years people have understood and there has been a change in civil society. In the last European elections, the young voters mobilized more to vote than the older ones, and people went to vote. In the last election, the Social Democrats lost 25%. They are on the end. Everyone understands that they are incompetent, illiterate. [En novembre 2019, quelques semaines après cette interview, le gouvernement de la sociale-démocrate Viorica Dancila est renversé par une motion de censure. Il est remplacé par le gouvernement Orban du PNL, le Parti national libéral. Le gouvernement actuel, dirigé par Florian Citu depuis décembre 2020, est une coalition des quatre partis libéraux. Aux scrutins de ces deux dernières années, le Parti social-démocrate a obtenu des scores historiquement faibles.]
“L’Affaire Collective” will be released in Romania, do you think it can change things?
I don’t know if a film can change society, but I expect people to understand how things work. I hope that the spectators will understand that it is necessary to take part in the life of the company, that it is necessary to vote. If we accept corruption or look away … It’s a bit like everywhere at the moment, we are afraid that the populists will come to power and we understand that we cannot expect things to happen. improve if we do not participate in the society in which we lived. [Le film est sorti en 2020 en Roumanie où il a suscité « l’émotion et la controverse », comme l’explique Courrier international et reste aujourd’hui « au cœur de débats acharnés ».]
Before being presented at La Roche-sur-Yon, your film was selected for those of Venice and Toronto. Is the reception different from one country to another?
Surprisingly, in all countries, the public reacts in the same way. It seems that this story is not local but that it concerns fears that we have in all countries. The fear that those who govern will no longer do anything in the service of the population and that they will do things that can kill us tomorrow. Corruption is a major problem everywhere.
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