by Michael Young | April 16, 2021
7 min read
"Collective" movie poster
Source: Magnolia Pictures

Editor’s Note: This is the third of five reviews of this year’s Academy Award nominees for best feature-length documentary, all of which are available for streaming. The reviews, specially commissioned by the Sun from former New Mexico-based movie reviewer Michael Young, will all be published before the 93rd Academy Awards ceremony on April 25.

On October 30, 2015, a fire broke out in the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest, Romania. The nightclub, located in a former factory building, had no fire exits and inadequate fire retardation systems. Twenty-seven people died on the scene, of their burns, toxic inhalations or trampling. More than 180 were sent to hospitals. The catastrophe provoked serious questions about how such a deathtrap had been allowed to operate and what kind of safety regulations existed or weren’t enforced.

Weeks after the fire, nearly 40 of those hospitalized had also died. Most of them succumbed not from their burns, but from bacterial infections caused by inadequate disinfection of their wounds and hospital sanitation. And these failures, it turns out, were the result of even worse government and corporate malfeasance. The scandal grew into a major indictment of the entire Romanian government and, eventually, the health minister was replaced by a former political activist and his team of technocrats, who set out on a parallel track with the Romanian press to uncover the truth about who profited from the lax operation of Bucharest’s hospitals and hold them accountable.

This amazing documentary tells the story of the investigations from the beginning, with cell-phone footage taken in the nightclub that night, hospital scenes showing the seriousness of the burns and the subsequent infections, and fly-on-the-wall videos of the ethical new health care minister and a dogged sports journalist as their independent inquiries build on one another’s findings to lay bare the kleptocracy infecting the country’s health care system. As’s Sheila O’Malley wrote: “It’s a portrait of corruption so total that oftentimes the participants onscreen look at one another helplessly, like ‘How can we even combat this? Where do we even start?’”

Sports Gazette editor Tontolan at a press conference
Unlikely heroes: A team of sports reporters, led by their newspaper editor Cătălin Tolontan, diligently followed each lead and succeeded in exposing the corruption at the heart of the Romanian health care system. Source: Magnolia Pictures

At the core of the journalistic investigation is a unlikely team: a group of reporters working for a Bucharest newspaper, Gazeta Sporturilor (Sports Gazette). The documentary never exactly explains how sports reporters were able to undertake investigative reporting of this depth and with such sustained motivation. I think that, maybe, because no one really expected this world-class performance from the Sports Gazette, they had an advantage of operating “under the radar.”

A lot of credit must be given to the team leader, editor Cătălin Tolontan, a reserved, unflappable but persistent man who is the “hero” of the film. Tolontan and his team succeed in untangling a huge, nasty Gordian knot by diligently following each lead and clue until all the “dirty little secrets”—the reckless disregard of the managers of Bucharest’s hospitals for the well-being of their patients, the unconscionable profiteering of hospital suppliers and the complicity of bribed government officials—have been revealed.

The documentary’s creation was also an act of heroism on the part of Romanian-born Alexander Nanau, who produced, directed, and co-wrote the film, as well as serving as its cinematographer and co-editor. Beginning to film almost as soon as the story of the fire broke, Nanau was able to insert himself into the staff meetings of the Sports Gazette and, even more impressively, of Health Minister’s Vlad Voicelescu.

It’s fascinating to watch in real time as the minister and his assistants struggle at first with how best to answer questions from the press and grieving families about why so many people had to die and then to seek to answers themselves. (Voicelescu might well the “David” working to bring down the cruel governmental Goliaths.) Nanau’s coverage of this courageous man’s attempts to root out the evil is nothing short of courageous itself. It is said that Nanau hid different segments of the film in various locations in Romania before shipping all of it to Germany for final assembly—a desperate act of preservation of not just the film, but probably of himself, as well.

Nanau’s approach is even more remarkable because it does not employ any of the standard documentary techniques. There are no “talking heads,” answering the narrator’s questions directly into a camera. Except for some introductory exposition, there are no on-screen identifications or context-setting explanations. Instead, Nanau relies on masterful juxtaposition of conversations and snippets of TV news reports to document the flow of events. “Collective” has the same look and feel as the investigative thriller, “Spotlight,” which won the 2016 Academy Award for Best Picture for its depiction of the Boston Globe’s expose of systemic sex abuse of children by local Roman Catholic priests. And, yet, “Collective” is not fiction—it is all very much real.

An extended set of touching scenes involves Tedy Ursuleanu, a strikingly beautiful young woman who was seriously disfigured by the fire. Ursuleanu is first seen posing unclothed for a photo shoot. The black-and-white photographs, which are ultimately displayed at an art exhibition at which Tedy meets Vlad and they warmly embrace, powerfully document the physical damage sustained by survivors of the fire. But even more powerful is watching Ursuleanu become a spokesperson for the victims and an ally of Voicelescu. Nanau’s decision to intercut the action with these intimate moments is brilliant.

It might be tempting to dismiss this story as emblematic of the “backwardness” of Eastern Europe. But that would be a serious mistake. As you watch the various layers of this onion being peeled to expose its putrid core, it becomes easy to understand how a mafia state could take over just about anywhere. The capitalistic point of view always puts short-term profits above all other considerations. The conservative point of view is to deny government has a role in trying to protect the people from businesses who are concerned only with earning a profit. The point of view is that government should help line the pockets of business.

Corruption can, and does, occur in any political system, including, most obviously, our own. What makes it even worse is how those in power frequently try to shut down the voices who can make their misdeeds public: journalists and the press. Muzzle them and insidious partnerships between business and government will truly go unchallenged and disasters like the Colectiv fire will become the norm, not an awful exception.

The movie ends on a somewhat pessimistic note, although I won’t go into detail about what that entails, other than to say that the ruling Social Democratic Party remains in power. However, viewers should know that, a month after this film was released in November 2020, Romania held another election. Perhaps in part because of the collective efforts of Tolontan, Voicelescu and Nanau, the ruling Social Democratic Party is replaced by a coalition of opposing parties. The mayor of Bucharest—who we have seen isn’t exactly on the side of the good guys—is voted out. And Voicelescu, the embattled health minister who had been forced out of office, is reinstated to continue his work uncovering graft and malfeasance in the nation’s health care system. Maybe there is hope after all.

It is interesting that, according to its IMDb audience rating and its Metacritic score, this movie is considered the best of all 41 Oscar-nominated films. That is an impressive achievement, considering that it is the first Romanian film to be nominated for an Academy Award. In fact, it was nominated in both the Feature-Length Documentary and International Feature Film categories. It is an important movie, and one that should be widely seen.

Is it the best movie of the year, though? I’m not so sure. The other two nominated documentaries I’ve reviewed in this series are extremely competitive. One must make the distinction between how you feel about the subject of a documentary and the level of its filmmaking. For that reason, I’m not ready to give “Collective” top billing. 4 stars

“Collective” is available on Hulu and Netflix DVD and for rent on Prime Video.


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Understanding New Mexico's proposed new social studies standards for K-12 students

“The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”
—National Council for the Social Studies 

Reader Michael L. Hayes of Las Cruces commented: What impresses me is that both the proposed standards and some of the criticisms of them are equally grotesque. I make this bold statement on the basis of my experience as a peripatetic high school and college English teacher for 45 years in many states with many students differing in race, religion, gender and socioeconomic background, and as a civic activist (PTA) in public education (My career, however, was as an independent consultant mainly in defense, energy and the environment.)

The proposed social studies standards are conceptually and instructionally flawed. For starters, a “performance standard” is not a standard at all; it is a task. Asking someone to explain something is not unlike asking someone to water the lawn. Nothing measures the performance, but without a measure, there is no standard. The teacher’s subjective judgment will be all that matters, and almost anything will count as satisfying a “performance standard,” even just trying. Students will be left to wonder “what is on the teacher’s mind?” or “have I sucked up enough.”

Four other quick criticisms of the performance standards. One, they are nearly unintelligible because they are written in jargon. PED’s use of jargon in a document intended for the public is worrisome. Bureaucrats often use jargon to confuse or conceal something uninformed, wrong or unworthy. As a result, most parents, some school board members and more than a few teachers do not understand them.

Two, the performance standards are so vague that they fail to define the education which teachers are supposed to teach, students are supposed to learn, and parents are supposed to understand. PED does not define words like “explain” or “describe” so that teachers can apply “standards” consistently and fairly. The standards do not indicate what teachers are supposed to know in order to teach or specify what students are supposed to learn. Supervisors cannot know whether teachers are teaching social studies well or poorly. The standards are so vague that the public, especially parents or guardians, cannot know the content of public education.

Three, many performance standards are simply unrealistic, especially at grade level. Under “Ethnic, Cultural and Identity Performance Standards”; then under “Diversity and Identity”; then under “Kindergarten,” one such standard is: “Identify how their family does things both the same as and different from how other people do things.” Do six-year-olds know how other people do things? Do they know whether these things are relevant to diversity and identity? Or another standard: “Describe their family history, culture, and past to current contributions of people in their main identity groups.” (A proficient writer would have hyphenated the compound adjective to avoid confusing the reader.) Do six-year-olds know so much about these things in relation to their “identity group”? Since teachers obviously do not teach them about these other people and have not taught them about these groups, why are these and similar items in the curriculum; or do teachers assign them to go home and collect this information?

Point four follows from “three”; some information relevant to some performance measures requires a disclosure of personal or family matters. The younger the students, the easier it is for teachers to invade their privacy and not only their privacy, but also the privacy of their parents or guardians, or neighbors, who may never be aware of these disclosures or not become aware of them until afterward. PED has no right to design a curriculum which requires teachers to ask students for information about themselves, parents or guardians, or neighbors, or puts teachers on the spot if the disclosures reveal criminal conduct. (Bill says Jeff’s father plays games in bed with his daughter. Lila says Angelo’s mother gives herself shots in the arm.) Since teacher-student communications have no legal protection to ensure privacy, those disclosures may become public accidentally or deliberately. The effect of these proposal standards is to turn New Mexico schools and teachers into investigative agents of the state and students into little informants or spies.

This PED proposal for social studies standards is a travesty of education despite its appeals to purportedly enlightened principles. It constitutes a clear and present danger to individual liberty and civil liberties. It should be repudiated; its development, investigated; its PED perpetrators, dismissed. No state curriculum should encourage or require the disclosure of private personal information.

I am equally outraged by the comments of some of T or C’s school board members: Christine LaFont and Julianne Stroup, two white Christian women, who belong to one of the larger minorities in America and assume white and Christian privileges. In different terms but for essentially the same reason, both oppose an education which includes lessons about historical events and trends, and social movements and developments, of other minorities. They object to the proposal for the new social studies standards because of its emphasis on individual and group identities not white or Christian. I am not going to reply with specific objections; they are too numerous and too pointed.

Ms. LaFont urges: “It’s better to address what’s similar with all Americans. It’s not good to differentiate.” Ms. Stroup adds: “Our country is not a racist country. We have to teach to respect each other. We have civil rights laws that protect everyone from discrimination. We need to teach civics, love and respect. We need to teach how to be color blind.”

Their desires for unity and homogeneity, and for mutual respect, are a contradiction and an impossibility. Aside from a shared citizenship, which implies acceptance of the Constitution, the rule of law and equality under the law, little else defines Americans. We are additionally defined by our race, religion, national origin, etc. So mutual respect requires individuals to respect others different from themselves. Disrespect desires blacks, Jews or Palestinians to assimilate or to suppress or conceal racial, religious or national origin aspects of their identity. The only people who want erasure of nonwhite, non-Christian, non-American origin aspects of identity are bigots. Ms. LaFont and Ms. Stroud want standards which, by stressing similarities and eliding differences, desire the erasure of such aspects. What they want will result in a social studies curriculum that enables white, Christian, native-born children to grow up to be bigots and all others to be their victims. This would be the academic equivalent of ethnic cleansing.


This postmortem of a case involving a 75-year-old women who went missing from her home in Hillsboro last September sheds light on the bounds of law enforcement’s capacity to respond, especially in large rural jurisdictions such as Sierra County, and underscores the critical role the public, as well as concerned family and friends, can play in assisting a missing person’s search.

Reader Jane Debrott of Hillsboro commented: Thank you for your article on the tragic loss of Betsey. I am a resident of Hillsboro, a friend of Rick and Betsey, and a member of H.E.L.P. The thing that most distresses me now, is the emphasis on Rick’s mis-naming of the color of their car. I fear that this fact will cause Rick to feel that if he had only gotten the facts right, Betsey may have been rescued before it was too late. The incident was a series of unavoidable events, out of everyone’s control, and we will never know what place the correct color of her car may have had in the outcome. It breaks my heart to think that Rick has had one more thing added to his “what ifs” concerning this incident.

Diana Tittle responded: Dear Jane, the Sun undertook this investigation at the request of a Hillsboro resident concerned about the town’s inability to mount a prompt, coordinated response to the disappearance of a neighbor. From the beginning, I shared your concern about how our findings might affect Betsy’s family and friends. After I completed my research and began writing, I weighed each detail I eventually chose to include against my desire to cause no pain and the public’s right to know about the strengths and limitations of law enforcement’s response and the public’s need to know about how to be of meaningful assistance.

There was information I withheld about the state police investigation and the recovery. But I decided to include the issue of the car’s color because the individuals who spotted Betsy’s car emphasized how its color had been key to their identification of it as the vehicle described in Betsy’s Silver Alert. Because the misinformation was corrected within a couple of hours, I also included in this story the following editorial comment meant to put the error in perspective: “The fact that law enforcement throughout the state was on the lookout in the crucial early hours after Betsy’s disappearance for an elderly woman driving a “light blue” instead of a “silver” Accord would, in retrospect, likely not have changed the outcome of the search” [emphasis added].

I would also point to the story’s overarching conclusion about the inadvisability of assigning blame for what happened: “In this case, a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances, many of them beyond human control, hindered the search that it would fall to Hamilton’s department to lead.”

It is my hope that any pain caused by my reporting will eventually be outweighed by its contribution to a better community understanding of what it will take in the future to mount a successful missing person’s search in rural Sierra County.

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