A documentary revealing large-scale fraud in the national health sector, leading to preventable deaths from infection, was the worst possible film to watch in the weeks preceding my daughter’s admission to hospital for a major leg operation last week (she’s home now and recovering). Collective (2019) was nominated for best international feature film and shortlisted in the category of best documentary film at this year’s Oscars, and when I saw that it was streaming on iplayer I thought I’d take a look, but it was more gruelling than anticipated.
Romania is pretty notorious for state corruption. Ministers and entire governments regularly fall as a result of sleaze probes and media allegations, and its politics make the oily BoJo look squeaky clean. In 2015 a nightclub fire killed 27 young people and injured many others. There was a national scandal, as the nightclub had been licensed, despite a lack of fire exits.
However, a new scandal was to engulf the country when almost 40 more young people, who had been injured in the fire, died in the subsequent weeks, often from theoretically avoidable cases of severe infection.
An investigation by, incongruously, the Romanian Sports Gazette revealed that hospital disinfectants had been diluted by producers, and were up to 10 times weaker than advertised. Dan Condrea, the head of the pharmaceuticals company Hexi Pharma, accused of complicity in the disinfectant scandal, died mysteriously in a car crash soon after the facts were made public. Was his death suicide? An accident? Murder?
We follow Vlad Voiculescu, the newly appointed, idealistic young health minister, who seeks to improve the nation’s health situation, noting that in Romania people with money typically prefer to travel to other nations for medical treatment due to its dire state. However, his work is impeded by entrenched corruption and a lack of adequate health infrastructure, as well as the apathy and effective disenfranchisement of the electorate. The movie itself cannot be dismissed as a piece of political propaganda and, with its focus on the dogged work of journalists determined to uncover the truth, is moving, shocking and at times even awe-inspiring – and would have made a worthy, if undoubtedly slightly leftfield choice for an Oscar jury.