By Oana-Maria Mazilu
The 93rd Academy Awards this year were the first time a Romanian film was nominated at the Oscars, in not just one, but two categories. Collective (Alexander Nanau, 2019) was amongst the nominees for Best Documentary Feature and International Feature Film. Unfortunately, it did not win in either category, despite being viewed as a strong contender (my money was on Best Doc). The nominations were received with mixed feelings, while the losses did not raise much noise among film critics.
Before the results were announced, Collective’s presence at the Oscars was in itself well-received because…well it is the Oscars. Yet, beyond this initial reaction a further consideration of the film led to a ‘hold on a sec’ kind of follow-up question: Why was Collective nominated while in previous years the wealth of New Wave films storming European film festivals did not make it this far? Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills (2012), a well-known figure of the New Wave, had been selected as Romania’s entry for the Foreign Language Film category at the 85th Academy Awards but did not go beyond the January shortlist. So why was Collective more appealing on the other side of the Atlantic than previous Romanian films? Film critic Ionuț Mareș offered an interesting breakdown of the reasons behind the success of the film, as well as the reticence towards it from some members of the Romanian audience.
In his opinion piece, Mareș pointed out that Collective had a successful festival run, a powerful distributor behind it (Magnolia Pictures), and a launch in Romanian cinemas before the pandemic completely destabilised the film industry. Added to this were favourable reactions from the press, particularly the anglophone press and, as Mareș rightly notes, the fact that Barack Obama named Collective as a favourite in his list of films for 2020 also increased its popularity and positive public opinion. Yet, to dismiss Collective’s nomination at the 2021 Oscars as a mixture of good timing and luck would be incredibly unfair.
The film’s subject matter resonated globally, I would argue in particular with the U.S. audiences. Collective deals with the aftermath of the Colectiv night club fire, corruption in the national health system, those who exposed it and those who wanted to do something about it. In the time of the Covid-19 pandemic, we are all much more interested in how health systems function nationally and collaborate internationally, and this would be the global resonance of the film. However, I believe that the themes of integrity, ethics and bravery in journalism were particularly relevant in the U.S. political scene. After four years during which legitimate press outlets were dismissed as fake news and manic rants were presented as facts by the Donald Trump administration, Cătalin Tolontan’s words that ‘when the press bows before authorities, the authorities will behave badly towards the people’ likely resonated with U.S. viewers. In this sense, the film reinforced the importance of the press in holding authorities to account and questioning political decisions. It is not surprising then, that Eric Kohn writing for IndieWire noted it as ‘One of the greatest movies about journalism and the dark forces it confronts’, a quote which also dawns the film’s poster.
The structure and pacing Collective also made it easier to follow by international viewers, adopting a Hollywood film type of narrative structure, although much more subtle than Chuck Norris vs Communism, which I previously discussed on Spot On, Doc. To put it simply, the first half of the film presents the journalistic investigation conducted by Gazeta Sportului (The Sports Gazette) led by Tolontan on the dilution of disinfectants used in hospitals which resulted in unsanitary conditions and further deaths after the nightclub fire. It was a difficult time as families tried to move their loved, burn victims of the Colectiv fire, from the Romanian hospitals in which they were infected with bacteria, to hospitals in other states of the European Union. International aid came in the form of foreign hospitals accepting to receive these victims. The Romanian diaspora also mobilised to provide local support by speaking to authorities in destination countries and housing the Romanian families travelling with the burn victims. In this sense, it is the first half of the film which has the greatest emotional impact. The Colectiv fire is a tragedy still fresh in the minds of Romanians, and the Gazeta Sportului investigation brings back those memories. The film opens with visceral footage from inside the club at the moment that it caught fire. Arguably, it is the scene with the highest emotional impact for any viewer and it is shown in the first seven minutes of the film. Yes, Collective hits you from the start but it also ensures that you are emotionally invested and following the meticulous journalistic investigation that dominates this first half. In its second half, the film turns to focus on the political, and more specifically the actions taken by Vlad Voiculescu, then newly appointed minister of health, in trying to untangle the corruption in the ministry and health system. It was this second half that some Romanian viewers took issue with. Some considered it propaganda for Vlad Voiculescu, others disliked the fact that any politician would be portrayed as a hero in a film, and ultimately political stances and personal opinions on public figures shaped Romanian audiences’ perception of the film. On my part, I stand by what I said in the episode. I did not feel that the film was propaganda for Voiculescu, instead, I believe he became a narrative device that voiced audience thoughts on-screen, particularly those around the lines of ‘how the hell do you even begin to tackle this corruption’.
The ending of the film may have also caused issues for Collective in terms of the Romanian audience, international audiences and the Oscars nomination. The film ends with the 2016 elections which saw the return to power of the Social Democrat Party. Romanians would argue that it was not a sufficiently detailed consideration of that context, while for international viewers it was not the happy ending that one is primed to expect from a Hollywood type of narrative structure. In terms of the Oscars, Variety predicted the win for My Octopus Teacher (Pippa Ehrlich, James Reed, 2020) with the commentary that it was ‘the feel-good film of the bunch’ in the Best Documentary Feature category. I am bitter, but without meaning to throw My Octopus Teacher under the bus, I do feel that Collective was more worthy of the win because of the debate and reflection that it sparks. We shouldn’t avoid these just because we need a feel-good film in the time of the pandemic. Quite the contrary, as mentally exhausting as it is, it is in such times of crisis that we need to be vigilant in following political decisions and question them when necessary. Still, Obama liked Collective. Thanks Obama!
Davis, C., 2021. 2021 Oscars Best Documentary Feature Predictions – Variety. [online] Variety.com. Available at: <https://variety.com/feature/2021-oscars-best-documentary-feature-predictions-1234784896/>
Kohn, E., 2021. ‘Collective’ Review: One of the Greatest Movies About Journalism and the Dark Forces It Confronts. [online] IndieWire. Available at: <https://www.indiewire.com/2020/11/collective-review-alexander-nanau-1234599567/>
Mareș, I., 2021. De ce deranjează documentarul „colectiv” – Ziarul Metropolis | Ziarul Metropolis. [online] Ziarul Metropolis. Available at: https://www.ziarulmetropolis.ro/de-ce-deranjeaza-documentarul-colectiv/