The Courage To Not Look Away

Interview with Alexander Nanau, director of Colectiv (2019), Verzio16 opening film by Oksana Sarkisova


At what moment did you decide to make a documentary about the investigation into the tragic fire at Colectiv?
The Colectiv fire was a national tragedy in Romania that triggered the biggest mass demonstrations since the revolution in 1989. People wanted change and to get rid of the corrupt political class that had been in charge of the country since 1990. So everything felt like a beginning for something new, like an awakening of society, and we thought we should try to make a film about it. At the same time, it seemed like an impossible mission, how could one capture the functioning of a society in an observational documentary? So we had our research team researching every bit of the story that was going on in the country. From the burn victims, to their families, to the press that was dealing with the tragedy, to the doctors involved. We were looking for characters whose lives we could follow. At a certain point my co-writer, Antoaneta Opris, who was also leading the research team, suggested that Catalin Tolontan, Mirela Neag and Razvan Lutac from the Gazeta Sporturilor would be great characters to follow in their investigation of the health system and the aftermath of the fire, as it might reveal a greater truth about the system of power.

Was the discovery of the extent of the corruption and the implication of very different social and political layers a surprise for you? 
That Romania has a lot of corruption on every single layer of society was not a surprise. But, what was not only a surprise but a shock was the lack of humanity that came to light. Beginning with the then-social democrat Prime Minister Victor Ponta, to the then-Minister of Health Nicolae Banicioiu, to all the professors and doctors who unanimously decided to lie to the whole country, on air, that Romania has the capacity to treat the 80 severe burn patients. Romania had no capacity at all to treat burn patients and the refusal of the authorities to transfer the patients to burn hospitals abroad was a death sentence for many of them. 

The same cynical attitude towards the Romanian population continued in the technocrat government under Prime Minister Dacian Ciolos, and his first Minister of Health Achimas Cadariu. They would lie that they had tested the diluted disinfectants accordingly and found them to be good. They tried to discredit the press investigation into the disinfectants, and only when people took to the streets again, against the technocrat government this time, because the press proved that the technocrats were lying, did they stop the nationwide use of diluted disinfectants in the 350 hospitals. Corruption was never a secret in Romania, but the lack of humanity and professionalism of those who are responsible for our health and lives in society was a shock to everybody. 

Your film intertwines the journalists’ investigation with the survivors’ search for justice – which part of the story brought more challenges during the making of the film? 
The toughest part for me was the process of identifying with the parents whose children were killed by the authorities. These parents were manipulated by doctors, hospital managers, secretaries of state and the minister of health himself who told them that that their injured kids were getting the best treatment in Romania. As a parent myself, I can only grasp a very little part of the pain a parent must feel when tricked into not flying his kid out to a hospital where the child could have been saved. I can't imagine a more painful and devastating situation in life. 
The difficulty with the rest of the filming was to stay organized and ready to shoot, any minute, for a period of about one year. 

The film is a statement to power and the impact of investigative journalism. How has it been received by the journalist community? 
As far as I can judge, from the journalists I have talked to after screenings, very good so far. What I understood is important and relieving for the journalists that have seen the film, is to see their work and life shown so realistically in the cinema. Journalism is something that is almost completely missing in European cinema. It is strangely ignored, as if it would not be an important part of our societies that we have to talk about. This is completely different in the culture of cinema in the US, where the press is portrayed because of its important role of protecting a liberal and democratic society. Maybe cinema storytelling, documentary and fiction is a good tool for us to start to understand the role of the press in our crumbling democracies in Europe. Films can also help us understand who the people behind the different types of press are, and what are their drives and interests. 

Your film now receives well-deserved attention and awards. What impact would you like it to have?  
My only interest when I tell a story is to raise questions about who we think we are as individuals and how we want to be. The filmmaking process, and the topics and characters that I chose, are for me a way of questioning myself in this regard. This process of questioning oneself, I try to transfer through storytelling onto the viewer. Therefore, I think the impact it can have depends on the individual that watches the story and if he accepts this process of introspection in cinema or not. So I can only hope that my team and I have done a good enough job to convince as many viewers as possible to reflect on the matter. 

Have you yourself changed through the making of the film? 
Every film I do is born out of my curiosity about life. I try to understand how others struggle, survive and also how they become who they are. So the making of this film surely taught me a lesson or two about resilience, courage to speak truth and risks others take in order to contribute to the society they live in, but also about the power of evil scrupulous people. I have found in everything here the perfect present-day reflection of Hannah Arendt's, The Banality of Evil. 

So it is hard to nail down in words how all these complex things have changed me. What I can say for sure is that all these stories and the people I have met have made me more determined to never look away, and to speak up whenever I see fraud and evil of any nature that I can prevent. The courage of the whistle-blowers, who were all women by the way, was impressive. One’s integrity is more important and defines one’s entire life much more than the consequences we might have to face for speaking up.