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'Collective' Chronicles The Nightclub Fire — And Corrupt System — That Killed 64

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The acclaimed new documentary "Collective" is Romania's entry for this year's Academy Awards. The film, which is available on demand and in virtual cinemas, follows a team of reporters whose investigation of a medical nightmare leads them to corruption among high-level corporate and government officials. Our critic-at-large John Powers says "Collective" is a gripping story that speaks to our present moment.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Every year, the organization Transparency International gets a global team of experts and business people to rank countries by their level of public corruption. In the most recent reading, New Zealand and Denmark tied for first as least corrupt. The United States came in 23rd, which might not seem so bad, except that we've dropped nearly 10 places over the last 20 years. To see why this slippage matters, I highly recommend the fast-paced, new documentary "Collective."

Alexander Nanau's great film trails a team of journalists investigating the aftermath of a 2015 fire at a Bucharest nightclub called Colectiv. It killed 64 young people and sparked public outrage over the political rot leading to these deaths.

We start off following Catalin Tolontan, a locally famous reporter at the daily sports gazette, who's looking into a startling fact. Although officials told parents that Bucharest's hospitals were as good as Germany's, 37 of the fire victims died there. How could this be? Thanks to tips from brave whistleblowers - nearly all of them women, incidentally - Tolontan traces many of these deaths to Hexi Pharma, a company that sold deliberately diluted disinfectants to Bucharest hospitals. Soon after his story appears, Hexi Pharma's owner kills himself - or so it seems - and the minister of health suddenly resigns.

To trumpet its good faith, the government replaces him with Vlad Voiculescu, a boyish patient rights advocate who exudes such good-humored honesty and compassion that you hope he's not a crook. He plans to reform a medical system where burn victims have maggots crawling in their wounds and everything works around a network of payoffs. Patients need to bribe doctors to get care, and hospital managers skim budgets and kick dirty money up to politicians. But Vlad's plans get him attacked by the ruling Social Democratic Party, which launches a demagogue campaign suggesting that, actually, he is the corrupt one.

Now, I can hear you wondering why you would ever want to see a documentary about corrupt medical care and in Romania, of all places. Well, for starters, it's a really good film that crackles with the excitement of a terrific mystery story. And unlike most docs these days, it doesn't lecture you or signal its own virtue. Nanau lets us figure out for ourselves how this story casts light on what's happening in the world right now.

"Collective" demonstrates the importance of an independent media, especially news reporters, in an age when governments seek to control information. Politicians fear a journalist like Tolontan, not because he's ideological but because he's a born bloodhound who lives to track the scent of malfeasance. It takes him and his team to reveal that fire victims died because the hospitals were crawling with deadly bacteria because of the bad disinfectants. And their digging proves what many Romanians already suspected - that this failure is rooted in ruling party chicanery. It's not for nothing that Romania ranks 70th on the corruption index.

Nanau also shows what happens when the civil service becomes a tool of one person or party. The mobsters who managed Bucharest's state-run hospitals didn't land their jobs because of their expertise in overseeing medical care. They were political appointees whose loyalty was not to their patients or their hospitals but to their political patrons, with whom they shared graft money. Everybody who mattered got their beak wet, to use a phrase from "The Godfather."

What keeps "Collective" from becoming despairingly dark is that we spend most of our time with Tolontan and Vlad, honorable men who are fighting for truth and accountability. And the film has a third hero, too, whose significance isn't immediately apparent. Her name is Tedy Ursuleanu, a 29-year-old architect who survived the Colectiv fire at great cost. Her head and body were terribly burned. Her fingers had to be amputated.

But rather than shrink into shame or defeatism, she refuses to let the darkness define her. She learns to use an artificial hand and fearlessly poses for nude photos - unsettling but not racy - designed to show the world the truth of who she is now. For Nanau, Tedy's transformation of pain into art seems to offer a model for Romania and all countries wounded by corruption. You begin by acknowledging your deepest and most painful scars and then move forward into a new vision of the future.

DAVIES: John Powers reviewed "Collective," a new documentary from Romania. The film is distributed by Magnolia Pictures and is available in virtual cinemas and on many on-demand platforms.

On tomorrow's show, we'll talk about vaccination with Dr. Peter Hotez, co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children's Hospital. He's battled the anti-vaxxer movement, and he's currently working on a vaccine for COVID-19. Much of his career has been devoted to developing vaccines for neglected poverty-related tropical diseases. I hope you can join us.

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DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Seth Kelley directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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