Occasionally, a documentary comes along that feels utterly vital: Collective is that documentary. This jaw dropping exploration of large scale corruption in the Romanian Health system (and connected systems) needs to be seen to be believed. It is a powerful and expertly constructed singular narrative about how the insufficient response to a tragedy – that never should have happened – became the one loose string that, when pulled, opened up everything. This film takes us into that gaping hole but, not only this, it takes us into it as the hole is still widening (and leaves us at the end knowing that it will widen every further).
This is the genius of this film. It is an unprecedented and unparalleled insight into an unfurling crisis. The film is not relayed to us in retrospect by external, or internal, voices; the film is on the front line from the beginning. In one way, it is staggeringly lucky filmmaking as we get to see a direct account of the crisis happening. Things feel like they develop in real time, giving it the feel of a dramatisation – of a thriller even – as events hit us like plot twists and everything keeps complicating. This type of organic progression is entrancing, as the film keeps uncovering more and more, the act of documenting becoming one of discovery. This is enhanced further by the subtle camera which pokes and prods, just pushing in a bit too far in a way that evokes ideas of interrogation. This is an astoundingly well made film about the importance of a investigative press that holds the government to account, in which the film does exactly what it preaches.
The way the film is formatted feels like investigative journalism in action, and is why it feels utterly vital. We probe further and further, always in the right place and always focused on the perspective that is giving revelations. Doing so approximates the feeling of uncovering scandalous realities and therefore conveys their full impact. It is tempting to call the film unshowy – traditional even (expected fly on the wall stuff) – as it is, seemingly, a straight forward documentary. To do so would be to overlook the complexity at play here, as the filmmakers turn swathes of footage into a cogent and gripping narrative that effortlessly swaps perspectives while always feeling like a singular investigation. You also feel like you are being told everything, like you are alongside the investigation, even though it is clearly heavily edited down. The film always gets the perfect balance of keeping in enough while always knowing when to cut to something else before it gets too dense – or dry.
This is a collection of important meetings with experts and the like yet it never feels overwhelming. It also never feels like it is simplifying things for you. This comes down to the actually brilliant filmmaking in which weighty footage is so perfectly trimmed so as to be digestible yet deep and informative but not just expository. It is really a marvel of invisible craft. The film flows so effortlessly, and is so gripping, that all of the brilliance fades into the background – just like it should. What we are left with is a searing reveal of a scandal that goes all the way to the top (or is it the bottom?). It is the kind of narrative that belongs in a procedural thriller, so the film takes the form of one. By dropping the talking head format, or even the interview format, of a retrospective documentary the film instead feels like genuine non-fiction filmmaking. It is filmmaking in the present tense, and this is awesome. It feels like if Spotlight wasn’t a dramatisation, and is all the more powerful for it. It has the weight and import of fact with the resonance and engagement of drama: the perfect combination.
Collective provides an important insight into Romanian politics, but it is also more than this – even though it does not need to be. The focus on process and discovery allows the film to work as a wider parable. This work is a call to arms for people to ask questions, to challenge systems and is a perfect declaration for the need for investigative media. In today’s world, these are important messages and the film knows it. Collective is aware that a story about how a healthcare system was not ready for foreseeable tragedies, or just conceivable circumstances, and how that comes down to normalised corruption and private interests. There are so many parallels that can be drawn to Covid responses and the revelations about our systems that have come out due to the strain of the pandemic. However, it is not a case of using one tragedy as a crude analogy for the concerns of another. The film speaks clearly to its own internal conflicts while also echoing outside of them. Again, it is the process and the filmmaking which makes this feel like a blueprint or an ideological statement. Through this film, we see the nature of institutions and how things work – and become corrupt – from a number of different perspectives. We leave informed about a very important event but we also leave wary and vigilant, inspired to challenge and angry at the capitalist systems that foster these circumstances.