Greg and Zanna watch Collective, the feel-bad hit of the year.
Number of times you'll want to punch the air: 1
Number of times you'll want to punch corrupt officials: Many
I went into Collective knowing absolutely nothing about it. Greg had sent me the information about the screening and all I'd absorbed was that it was at 6.30pm on a weeknight, meaning it required a co-ordinated effort involving after-school activities and subjecting my mother to putting all three of our children to bed - an undertaking Greg and I regularly emerge from looking like soldiers coming home from war. So preoccupied was I with my children's needs, I didn't know it was a documentary, nor a foreign-language film, when the opening credits began.
To say I had forgotten about all my children's needs and almost their existence, by about five minutes into the film, sounds cruel but is true. Collective is such a masterful piece of documentary making, I lay in bed that night googling its creator, Alexander Nanau, trying to figure out how he was able to pull it off.
Collective's great triumph is the access Nanau was granted. How exactly three sports reporters came to be investigating misconduct in the health system is never addressed but Nanau's camera is present through revelation after revelation, as the extent of Romania's corruption starts to reveal itself. It's a remarkable achievement of fly-on-the-wall film-making, taking the audience inside meeting rooms and phone conversations that would ordinarily, often necessarily, remain confidential.
The catalyst for the investigation is the astonishingly high number of victims of the 2015 Colectiv nightclub fire who subsequently died in hospital, not from their initial injuries but from bacterial infections. Thanks to some very brave whistleblowers, all of whom were female according to Nanau, the reporters learn the hospital had been using highly diluted disinfectants and, as the documentary reveals, this is just the very tip of the corruption iceberg.
Despite the fact the film is in large part about journalism, politics and bureaucracy, Nanau skilfully avoids making a dreary office documentary - all grey walls and ugly partitions - by reminding the audience about what's really at stake when public institutions are rotten to the core. There is some very disturbing imagery in the film, including horrifying footage of a burns victim's infection, and video from inside the Colectiv fire itself.
It's not an easy watch; it's not hopeful or uplifting. Nanau has said that making the film made him realise how rotten human nature can be, which, when the lights come up and you remember you have three small children at home, is a pretty devastating truth.
The movie reached the climax of its brilliant and thought-provoking narrative about the power of journalism, and I was ready to go home punching the air with one hand and googling "How to be a journalist" with the other, only to discover, far from being finished, that it was about to make a remarkable transition from brilliant film about journalism to brilliant piece of journalism - so incandescent that, by the time I left, I had retired any journalistic dreams I might have had, demoralised by the unsurpassable genius of the example that had flashed before my eyes.
A rare film, then: both about a form and among its greatest examples. When I said to Zanna it was the best documentary I'd ever seen, she was surprised, even shocked. I said, "There's no doubt it was better than [2005 documentary] Mad Hot Ballroom".
She said: "They're quite different films," which is true: Collective is about the many deaths caused by corruption in Romania, while Mad Hot Ballroom is about a kids' ballroom dancing course in New York. Mad Hot Ballroom was the feel-good hit of the year 2005 and Collective is the feel-bad hit of 2021. As one theatregoer said upon its conclusion, "That was a bit glum, wasn't it?"
It was difficult to disagree with that sentiment. Dozens of young people dead in a fire, many more dead after being maltreated in a health system so corrupt it's hard to imagine it ever being fixed. On the other hand, the film focuses on the people - two in particular - who refuse to accept that as fact, who seem to have such a belief in the fundamental goodness of human nature, or at least the power of their positions to make change, that they fight on regardless. That kind of behaviour, far from glum, is kind of inspiring, although, as I said earlier, also a bit demoralising.
Journalism is full of voices who annoy us with their aggressive challenges to our favoured politicians and thought leaders; voices who like the sound of their own questions more than is emotionally healthy. Nevertheless, I challenge you to go watch Collective, then tell me those voices are not a net good. I doubt you'll be able to hear yourself think over the chants of "Journalism! Journalism!" which you discover - much to your surprise - are coming from inside yourself.
Collective will be screening in cinemas from Thursday.