An unflinching look at the investigative journalists of the Romanian newspaper Gazeta Sporturilor, Collective is a necessary examination of the corruption that can spread unchecked without a robust press to hold it accountable. It is fitting that Collective is Romania’s submission to the Academy Awards this year. The documentary is more than deserving of the award.
Collective takes place following the horrifying fatal 2015 fire at the Collectiv nightclub in Bucharest, Romania. The fire killed 27 people. Widespread government health care fraud, corruption, and greed on all levels would kill 37 more.
The film shows footage of the initial fire itself, caused by a pyrotechnic effect that set alight soundproofing foam, and the chaos that ensued. It is a starkly terrible event, which only makes it more horrific that the aftermath saw more preventable death. When the fire was put out, the horror continued for the victims and their families.
The focus of the documentary is journalists Cătălin Tolontan, Mirela Neag, and Răzvan Luţac, who head up the team that blows the lid off the entire scandal. It is their reporting that shakes the country to its core.
The power and impact of the work they do is juxtaposed against the day-to-day grind of running down all the necessary details of the story to make it work. It is often grueling work that requires a lot of patience. For the documentary to have the discipline to sit with them and observe their work is noteworthy.
It also leads to a building outrage at how rotten the entire system of government is. It is almost unbelievable how widespread the corruption becomes. In one meeting, Neag even remarks that it is so much to fathom that people might not believe it.
The standout moment comes when Tolontan articulates the most crucial lesson learned from his work: "When the press bows down to the authorities, the authorities will mistreat the citizens." Little glimpses in the documentary—from the sound of typing to the process of seeing the page layout—emphasize the crucial, tedious process of journalism.
If I have any hang-up with the documentary, it's that it at times loses sight of some of the people impacted by the government's mess, as well as the journalists themselves. I'm not saying I would watch a four hour epic of their lives à la City Hall, but there is still a feeling that something is lost.
Thankfully, the documentary centers back to both these groups for a heartbreaking conclusion that left me with pressing questions, questions that all societies will have to answer: How long can journalists keep up the work, and what will happen if we lose sight of the importance of that work? It is journalists who will continue to expose corruption by bringing it out into the light. It is that work that we must preserve at all costs.