*. In my notes on Spotlight I mentioned how it was a sad movie not just for its subject matter as for its elegiac tone in being about the death of the newspaper industry and journalism in general. Movies like All the President’s Men now seem part of a past we are no longer connected to, especially when Woodward and Bernstein on the fiftieth anniversary of Watergate could declare the crimes of Donald Trump exponentially greater than Nixon’s, which turned out not to mean anything at all. Meaning that even if we still had a functioning news ecosystem it likely wouldn’t matter to a public so invested in manufactured narratives and quick to call anything they disagree with fake news.
*. Collective is a documentary that drives this point home even further. It starts off with the Colectiv nightclub fire in Bucharest, Romania in 2015 that killed 64 people and injured many more. Some horrific footage taken inside the club provides one of the more shocking moments in the film as the whole place basically bursts into flame in a matter of seconds.
*. In the aftermath of the fire the club owners were charged with negligent homicide and bodily harm but the story being investigated in this film has to do with the substandard medical treatment provided victims of the fire who subsequently died in hospital due to cost-cutting and corruption, and in particular the dilution of anti-bacterial disinfectants. It’s broken by a team of reporters for the daily Gazeta Sporturilor or The Sports Gazette. And if you’re wondering why a sports paper was breaking this story you’re not alone. Even Romanians express surprise. Nothing much is said in explanation of this but the implication is that most of the news media were in the tank with the government.
*. The big boost Collective got as a documentary, what in fact made it possible in the first place, is the fact that the government in power at the time of the fire was replaced by a temporary non-partisan caretaker administration that was tasked with looking into these matters. This allowed the filmmakers access that would never have been granted in any other circumstances I can imagine. Are things any better in our own health care systems? I think so, but perhaps not so much as we’d like to think.
*. Aside from the reporters, the main character in the drama is Vlad Voiculescu, the interim health minister who seems a well-meaning young man trying to get to the bottom of a truly miserable situation.
*. The whole system is rotten with corruption. In what is probably the most striking moment in the movie Voiculescu talks to a doctor who tells him of how other doctors at the hospital she works at bribe the heads of surgery so that they can then take bribes from the patients. Voiculescu can only respond initially with a laugh of sad amazement and then ask “How did hospitals get so bad? And doctors? It’s their humanity, after all.” To which the doctor replies “Well, as my mother put it, we’re no longer human. We doctors, we’re no longer human beings. We only care about money.” The matter-of-fact way she says “we’re no longer human” is as chilling and unforgettable line you’ll hear in any movie.
*. The end of the film is as dark as everything that has gone before, with the return to power of the same Social Democratic government that had been in charge before (these ironic party names are a feature of dysfunctional democracies). Apparently in that election there was a turnout of less than 40%. This despite the anti-corruption rallies we see in the street.
*. All of which brings us back to the death of the news and the feeling that nothing matters anymore. What good did any of this reporting do? It’s been said that speaking truth to power doesn’t mean much because power doesn’t care, but what if nobody else cares? We’re not living in an age of post-truth or post-facts so much as one of post-political engagement. And, as the doctor’s diagnosis has it, on our way to becoming post-human.