“Democracy Dies in Darkness”. That’s the official slogan of The Washington Post.
The Fourth Estate is under attack, not just in the US where populist politicians are using their soap boxes to vilify the media in an attempt to keep their base’s focus away from their own failings, but also here in Hong Kong, where journalists have been thrown in jail awaiting trial without bail and newspapers are either being shut down or their journalists are self-censoring. The same happened – and I suspect it is still happening – in Romania where journalists and newspapers are reluctant to take on the government for fear of reprisal. But something changed in 2015. In October of that year, a fire broke out at the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest, immediately killing 27 people and injuring 180 others. As if that wasn’t tragedy enough, over the following months, another 37 of those 180 people died due to a lack of proper healthcare at the public hospitals. The government, led by the Social Democratic Party, had said that these people were getting the same standard of treatment they would have received at some of Europe’s best hospitals but that just wasn’t true. As Sports Gazette journalist Cătălin Tolontan discovered, these people never stood a chance thanks to a culture of cronyism, bribery, fraud, indifference and fear of speaking out that runs from the medical system through to the country’s highest levels of office. This incredible story is told as events unfold in real time in director Alexander Nanau’s Oscar nominated, hard-hitting and often heart-breaking documentary, COLLECTIVE.
Nanau takes a fly-on-the-wall approach to the project, following Tolontan and his two colleagues as they dig deeper into the root causes of how these 37 people needlessly died. For journalists or anyone who is thinking of becoming a journalist, it’s a great lesson in how much work goes into writing an exposé. The director also turns his lens on Vlad Voiculescu, a 32-year-old patient rights activist who is thrown into the fire when he is appointed as the country’s new Minister of Health following the resignation of his predecessor. Voiculescu has a mammoth juggling act to perform. He has to address the medical and psychological needs of the fire’s survivors, answer the press’ questions and try to reform a system that has been rife with corruption for decades. It’s a near-impossible task – one that Prime Minister Florin Cîțu probably wanted him to fail at – but Voiculescu is up for the challenge. When the president of the company at the center of the healthcare scandal suddenly dies in a car crash, we in the audience start to understand what Voiculescu and the journalists are up against… and it’s formidable.
Watching the film, it’s easy to think that this degree of political corruption won’t happen here, wherever “here” happens to be, but democracy and accountability really can die in darkness unless we all make an effort to ensure it doesn’t.
COLLECTIVE opens in Hong Kong this Thursday (July 8th) for a limited run. It’s also available on Amazon Prime Video. It is one of the best films I’ve seen so far this year.
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