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Oscars Spotlight Column: ‘Collective’ is a gripping account of truth and injustice

"Collective" tells the story of how a group of investigative journalists exposed rampant government corruption in Romanian healthcare. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures/TNS.

The Oscar-nominated “Collective” is one of the most riveting documentary films in recent memory. 

Alexander Nanau’s Romanian feature provides an observational look at the political and societal fallout that happened in the wake of a devastating nightclub fire.  The incident killed 27 people and led to 37 additional deaths due to mismanagement in the following weeks. 

"Collective" is nominated in the categories of Best International Feature Film and Best Documentary Feature.

Nanau tells this story through three main perspectives: the journalists reporting the issues, the politicians dealing with policy consequences and the victims of the fire. Through this three-dimensional account, Nanau is able to effectively convey the deep complexities and consequences of a major societal event.

The story is shocking and disturbing, becoming even more so as the lurid details gradually unfold. Nanau immerses us from the beginning, immediately highlighting the tragedy at hand through poignant clips of the victims’ families. Throughout the runtime, the scope grows broader and our emotions as viewers grow stronger. This culminates in an emotionally powerful conclusion that, like the opening, emphasizes the human cost of injustice.

Nanau’s scene-to-scene approach is the most effective aspect of “Collective.” There are no talking-head interviews and no extraneous sounds or music. Each moment is told in a direct, fly-on-the-wall format that is consistently engaging. The simplicity of the approach makes the tragedy feel much more urgent and real. 

Another net result of the approach is that the film demands our attention at every moment. The untouched and present-tense telling of events keeps the film from ever talking down to the audience, allowing us to witness the horrors and societal challenges without any undue editorializing in how we see the story play out.

Because of this mostly objective approach, it feels as though we are watching events occur in reality — with unpredictable stakes and terrifying implications. Instead of letting the action take a break with a filmmaker’s interjection of produced graphics or non-diegetic music, we remain firmly in the film’s world – Nanau lets the events speak for themselves. 

The most striking arena in which these impartial events occur on camera is in scenes that focus on journalists. Instead of simply seeing the finished product and having the facts reported to us, we see the tumultuous and meandering process of finding the truth. The frank presentation of this crucial process adds even more to the power of the film.

In its straightforward and methodical portrayal of journalism, the film plays almost like a modern “All the President’s Men.” Like that film, “Collective” follows a thrilling chase for the truth, but also shows the frustrating obstacles that journalists face. While this facet of the film follows a small and specific group of writers, the main focus is on the journalistic process, rather than the journalists themselves. 

The other portions of the film, which primarily follow the minister of health and one victim of the accident, also focus on gradual processes. Respectively, they examine the process of policy adjustment and the process of recovering from a personal tragedy. Nanau’s editing allows the three gradual progressions at hand to interweave brilliantly.

These editing techniques are where the film finds its deepest power. Nanau’s work serves as a statement about how any major event yields multiple consequent processes. “Collective” demonstrates how these processes interact, how they can assist and impede each other and how they can happen at different speeds. The film is about a specific event, but this significant idea can apply to almost any major incident.

Overall, “Collective” is a consistently compelling and deeply powerful documentary about the importance of truth and the frustrations of bureaucracy. (9.5/10)

“Collective” is now streaming on Hulu and was nominated for the Best International Feature Film and Best Documentary Feature Oscars.


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