Collective attempts to untie the Gordian knot that is Romanian corruption

Throughout much of the last century, there hasn’t been very much positive news to come out of Romania. From 1947 to 1989, during the Communist period, Romania was an Eastern European version of North Korea. Then, in 1989, Romanians were given a grisly holiday gift when a period of civil unrest eventually ended with the public execution of the head of state and his wife on Christmas Day. In the years after the Romanian Revolution, news outlets covering the country reported on the lingering effects of corruption in Romanian society. For example, many media outlets have reported on state-run orphanages that were replete with abuse and neglect. The children who lived in those orphanages continue to face the psychological toll of their traumatic experiences over thirty years later.

It is against this backdrop that I, the child of a Romanian immigrant, watched Collective, a documentary film about corruption in Romania’s healthcare system. This documentary effectively conveys a simple message: corruption is still alive in Romania. This film chronicles how a variety of systems within Romanian society have failed to change in any meaningful way. Specifically, this film follows the efforts of journalists to uncover widespread healthcare fraud committed in the aftermath of a deadly fire at a Romanian nightclub in 2015.

Undoubtedly, the most moving parts of the film are those scenes which follow one of the victims of the nightclub fire. Early in the film, we see a woman as she poses for a photographer with her disfigured body on display. For much of the film, she remains silent, letting the scars from her burns speak for her. We see her as she gets fitted with a mechanical, prosthetic hand. Near the end of the film, it is revealed that the photographs were used for an art exhibition. People look up at the photographs, utterly speechless, gazing upon the the various poses in which this woman displays her scars both literally and figuratively.

There are also scenes, at the beginning and end of the film, which feature a man whose son died after receiving negligent medical care after the nightclub fire. In another impactful scene, a doctor films a patient who literally has maggots crawling across his neck. These scenes personalize a tragedy that would otherwise fade into obscurity. In early scenes featuring a health minister that later resigned, it becomes apparent that one of the few advances in Romanian governance has been in the art of evading responsibility. Whereas earlier generations faced a more explicit threat, Romanians today seem to be at the mercy of a far more subtle one: bureaucratic indifference.

Though this review may seem bleak, this documentary does give me a restrained sense of hope. There appear to be some signs of a shift in Romanian society. For one thing, the mere existence of this documentary is one such sign. It is difficult to imagine a documentary of this sort existing prior to 1989. The fact that there are journalists brave enough to expose corruption through their reporting and through this film should inspire and motivate Romanian citizens to work toward substantive change.

Another sign of change involves the efforts of Laura Codruța Kövesi, former chief prosecutor of the National Anticorruption Directorate, an agency of the government tasked with fighting corruption. Kövesi makes a brief cameo near the end of this film as she speaks to a doctor who describes the horrendous conditions in which she works. Ousted from her position for political reasons, Kövesi is now the first prosecutor to lead the European Public Prosecutor’s Office, which investigates fraud in the European Union. Her commitment to running an independent prosecutor’s office is laudable and her success at prosecuting government officials in Romania deserves the recognition it has received.

But, the overarching lesson of Collective is perfectly encapsulated by a conversation interim health minister Vlad Voiculescu has with his father following parliamentary elections. In that conversation, Voiculescu’s father voices his concern that his son will not be able to make changes necessary to eliminate corruption after observing that the ruling political party has prevailed on election night. Throughout the film, Voiculescu is one of the few government officials that seems to take his job seriously. In the aforementioned phone call, his father insists that change is not possible and he tells Voiculescu it would be better to return to Vienna where he could really help people.

Changing systems is difficult work. Collective is a film that lays that truth bare for all to see. As the name inadvertently suggests, Collective proves that the efforts of individuals alone is not enough. In order to combat corruption, the collective effort of an entire society is required. This film is worth watching for anyone who wants to develop a better understanding of the power of social systems to perpetuate suffering. This film is available now through The Nightlight Cinema’s Virtual Screening Room.