Alexander Nanau’s Collective, which is nominated for two Academy Awards, tells the story of how a team of Romanian journalists investigating a fire at a Bucharest nightclub that killed 64 people uncovered widespread government corruption and fraud.
Following its Venice Film Festival premiere in September, Collective became the first Romanian film to be nominated for an Oscar, and only the second film ever (following Honeyland last year) to be nominated in both the international feature film and documentary feature categories.
Nanau discussed the film with acclaimed Chinese artist, director and activist Ai Weiwei, who has himself drawn attention to government corruption through his many documentary projects. Meeting over Zoom, the duo covered the origins and difficulties in making Collective; the film’s fractious Oscar campaign; and the future of the film industry.
Ai Weiwei: Collective is a very special film. It’s a unique film about a tragedy that happened in Romania. Can we start with some background about how you got involved?
Alexander Nanau: Sure, we had this fire in this music venue in Bucharest by the end of 2015. The club was called Colectiv. This fire took the life of 27 people instantly. But the main problem was that a lot of people started to die in hospitals, although the health authorities and the politicians had said that these people could have been treated perfectly at the highest European standards, “better than in Germany”. But there were over 180 injured people.
After the fire – for the first time since the revolution – a young generation started demonstrating. They organised it on social media, under the tag #corruptionkills, and in many cities they took the streets to demonstrate against a corrupt and incompetent political class. Because it was clear that this club was functioning legally, although it had only one fire exit.
On top of that, the manipulation of the health care system was systematic: politicians together with doctors came in front of TV cameras every half an hour, lying about being able to treat these patients. Prohibiting the parents of these injured kids, to have them transferred to other European countries.
I not only had the feeling that something new was happening in Romanian society – a turning point – but also through this manipulation by these politicians my thought was: “I want to make a film about power. I want to understand who these people are, those who are able to use that power and knowingly are letting people die.”
But I could not get access to this power for sure. It was only this team of journalists from this sports newspaper around [lead reporter] Catalin Tolontan – they started investigating and showed that the fire department was lying when they said they did not know the club existed, and that the only hospital supposing to function for surgeries on the patients was actually about to close down. It was only opened months earlier for TV cameras to justify the money they spent. And so we approached the journalists and asked if they could imagine letting us show their investigation on the health care system.
Ai Weiwei: I can realise that it is not just about the club. Not about the death toll. It is a much bigger problem in this kind of political structure. I come from China, [and] what you have described is beyond the “angry communist society”. This kind of struggle, questioning the [power] structure, is a very difficult job. It takes filmmakers and individual journalists to really work on self-consciousness and the understanding of justice, because otherwise is going to get worse. What is the situation in Romania right now?
Nanau: Romania theoretically became a democracy 30 years ago after the Revolution. In 2007 it also joined the European Union. But these power structures, for sure, are exactly built up as they were in communist times. It’s a feudal system. And the health care system in Romania is still based on the same rules that functioned during communism. There are powerful people on top of the system that controls who gets rich jobs in rich hospitals. They basically control the public funds. The corruption is that they installed hospital managers that belong to political parties only to drain the money out of the hospitals. And the hospitals are bankrupt; Romania has not built new public hospitals in 30 years.
What is interesting right now is that these investigations have changed society. People now have a different [view of] the press. Press investigations are a threat to corrupt power. And the civil society is basically organised in a different way than before the fire. Right now, it is civil society through NGOs that is building hospitals with private donations. Citizens can donate via SMS. The band Metallica donated a quarter million euros to a newly built hospital.
During the Corona crisis, there was again the civil society bringing the equipment to the doctors and building mobile hospitals for Covid that function. The state also built mobile hospitals for Covid but none of them is open; they were built without any technical standard, they were only built to spend millions of Euros.
We can feel that society is going through a change. People vote differently, we have some new reformatory parties. We have young people that have won in the last elections. They became mayors in different cities, and now fight for transparency and against corruption. Even the minister of health that you see in the film joined one of these new parties. He got enough votes to be part of a coalition government and he is now again the minister of health, fighting with a system that tries to destroy him through the media because he tries to be transparent.
Ai Weiwei: You sound quite optimistic. I talked to the writer Herta Müller, who is not so optimistic. She said that even after the change, the system is controlled by the same people. Social change takes generations to become real. So much of that is exactly what is happening in China: a corrupt system that controls all the resources. Without corruption they simply cannot survive. You belong to European Union, but still look what happens in the other countries – with Julian Assange pulled out of an embassy and put in jail for 700 days or something. This is a very important case for investigative journalism: providing a platform for the voice. How do you think about the future? The civil society… with filmmakers and artists coming out as a force able to bring the political change?
Nanau: I think we have a big advantage in Europe, where there can be an independent press, but what I found out making this film is that this comes down to the individual. How prepared is a journalist to be a professional and work for the service of the people? To not be biased, to not be polarised and not serving his own bubble. A journalist can win with his credibility the trust of the citizens, and with that the citizens can start to learn and to change.
Because of this crisis that we are having since 2016 in democratic countries – Trump, Bolsonaro and all this fear we had when the countries were taken over by populists – I think people started to become aware of how the political system works and how important is to vote. In Romania I see a young generation between 16 and 30 that really starts to be different. After the fall of communism in Romania, the education on what communism did to the society and what a democracy is was basically not provided in schools. So there was a generation that had to learn this just by living. And now a generation that travelled more and studied outside the country stands up to give their contribution to the society by the values they believe in.
That said, we look at the western countries and it’s exactly the same system. For example, in Great Britain, it’s incredible how much corruption was there during the pandemic. I think we do have a time window now where people realise how important it is to contribute. But I think that in this small window, where the administration changed in US and Romania and other countries – if the young people that were voted into politics and promised change, transparency against corruption… if they fail and don’t meet the expectations that part of society has in them, I am afraid this will bring a backlash in four years. Again, more populists will have more power because more people will not trust politics.
That is also what I try to show in the film. I understood that the learning curve in a society is so much longer and it takes so much more time to change than the learning curve of the individual. And you see this in the film: people voted back the corrupted parties in Romania and brought them back into power.
Ai Weiwei: As a filmmaker, what is the difference between making films in your own country and making films in another European country?
Nanau: We make films with a lot less support. In western Europe we have the support of film funds and film centers that work. In Romania we have the same system because we are part of the European Union, but for example the Romanian Film Center did not have any financing around since 2019. During the pandemic, they did not help the film industry at all. They even annulled financing that was legally binding, and they had not a single mechanism of supporting the cultural industries that had to close down because of the pandemic. So everybody is going bankrupt. Culture does not interest them, but culture is always a threat. Because culture means education. With a film like ours, you can understand how the system works. And that is a threat to them.
Ai Weiwei: But do you feel also lucky because you are sharing European values? And you get some kind of moral support to films like this. I also made a few films during the pandemic; one is about Wuhan – an extremely difficult film to make. Because in China, ever since lockdown, anybody [who] make these kinds of works… some end up being sentenced, others disappear. At least in Europe you don’t risk things like that.
I also made a film about the Hong Kong demonstrations. I finished those two films last year. We applied for festivals but got refused. I’m not complaining, but I am glad that your film was able to join a major film festival [Collective premiered at Venice Film Festival 2020]. [It helps] people realise that there is a struggle and that the struggle is meaningful.
Nanau: Yes, it’s a great advantage for Romania to be in the European Union, besides the cultural support of other countries for our films, also the society has political support. Because every time the system tries to change the laws and to basically permit corruption – which they have been doing for the last five years – every time this goes too far, the European Union steps up to get involved and to stop them. Which is a great advantage.
With the culture it is the same: we are lucky that the work of Romanian artists is supported by western European countries. We find co-producers and festivals that support us, and our films can travel. But for sure we cannot compare the level of life threat that journalists and artists have in Romania… we cannot compare this to China. What is comparable is the reaction of the system, the system does not want to see films about the things that do not work in society. Our film was only chosen as Romania’s Oscar entry because the rules at the Oscars are very clear: it has to be an independent commission. And the independent commission of film critics chose this film.
Once they found out that it was this film, they tried to cut our funding for the campaign. They tried to reverse the decision but could not, because the rules are very clear with the Oscars. And then we had to fight with them to give us the same funding they gave to the other films in the last years. They said, “Ok, we will give you half.” I said, “Ok, but you have to give us all of it.” They said, “Maybe we will give you the other half if you get on the shortlist.” And I said, “Good, if you do that then I will make a scandal. Because you cannot do that. You give it every year until now and now because it’s a film you don’t like, you don’t do that.”
In the end they agreed to put it in writing that they would give us the second half when we got on the shortlist. So basically, they tried everything to put down the film. The media that is close to the power – 80% of it – did not talk about the film. Although we had record numbers in cinemas, and when it went on HBO it was the most viewed film in Romania on the HBO platform. After that, they could not harm it, they tried to embrace it. They came and said, “We want to give you a medal of honour for the contribution to culture.” [It will be given] by the president of the country. I said, “No, I don’t want it. I’m sorry, I cannot take a medal of honour from this system that is fighting culture and is not supporting culture.”
I refused it on the phone several times, then they asked me to put it in writing. I saw it as my right to publish my letter towards the president and the minister of culture on why I refused the medal. And their reaction was that they issued a press release in which they said: “This director is ill-intended”. They listed the funding the film got in 2016 for production but did not say it was 2016. They basically lied in a very tricky way, saying that I got a lot of funding for this film during the pandemic. And the most appalling thing was that they said, “This director came into our office in the ministry of culture when we proposed him the medal and he asked for money. And because we refused the money, he refused the medal.”
They denigrated my company, the production and my name in public. And general public does not know how things work, how culture gets funded. And for sure, I got all the hate with private messages… that I am basically a parasite.
Ai Weiwei: Yes, that is a kind of game they always use. It’s very rare to hear about this in Europe. But also we saw that kind of system working during the American elections. It’s going to be a long fight, and it’s not going to be an easy fight for a clear and bright future. The fight has to become part of life. So I congratulate you: you have a clear mind, you are very positive and had the courage to refuse that kind of “honour” because you don’t think it’s an honour. What do you think about the film industry in general? For feature films or documentary films… what would be the future?
Nanau: It’s a very good question. It’s a concern that I have, and I talked to a lot of colleagues about it. Because for sure, right now because of the pandemic, because we don’t have cinemas that can bring back funding to good films, and the power gets concentrated in the hands of the streamers… I feel that we are at a crossroads where I fear that the business of streamers in certain countries is more important than allowing films that are reflective and critical about societies. We saw it from different streamers that pulled films from their platforms because several countries don’t like them. And they are afraid to lose the license in several countries.
Ai Weiwei: Yes, one of the biggest markets is China. That’s why all those festivals had to refuse me, not only because of the content but also because of my name. I think the whole thing is changing, but I don’t think that the theaters still would function as before. And the system is not going to work as before. Of course, the whole political system or economic system is really just made because of commercial profit. Everything beyond all arguments is about profit.
Nanau: That’s true, that’s how the system works. But at the same time, my concern is that I hear from different countries that the streamers now want to make content with the biggest influencers on Instagram. They want to make shows and films with these people. This is clearly a decision for content of the lowest quality for the masses. That’s where they put their money in.
At the same time, I have a feeling there is a young generation coming, and I see it from the emails I get from the young people that saw our film… For sure we have a great part of society that gets more and more towards simple content, but I’m also sure that a good part of the young generation around the world wants more. That they want to contribute in a positive way and to start to formulate what they want from their future. And our job will be to see how to connect with them.
For sure, our audience for films that really deal with the inner working of society will get smaller and smaller. But who knows? Maybe we will find an artistic way to make more people understand or open up. I think in the end this is our task. We have to change as artists, understanding how to get to these people, how to open their eyes, how to ask the questions in a way that gets them interested in listening. So it’s a struggle for us also.