"...paints a dark portrait of the institutions we rely on most for protection..."

2020, An Exemplary Year for Documentaries

(122620) Perhaps documentaries just got more attention in 2020 because so many fictional films had stillborn releases because of covid. Some of the good to great docs I had the pleasure of seeing this year have included: Planet of the Humans (about the lies told by both the left and right regarding climate change), My Octopus Teacher (about the unlikely close friendship between a mollusk and a human), White Riot (about the anti-racist movement in 70s UK punk rock movement), Dick Johnson is Dead (about a dying man suffering from dementia ). My Social Dilemma (about how social media is changing how we think), House of Cardin (about the late fashion designer) and Totally Under Control (about how Trumpian policies exacerbated the covid epidemic in the USA). I have not seen some of the most acclaimed ones, including David Byrne’s Utopia, City Front, The Go Go's or Crip Camp.

But the best one that I've had the pleasure of watching was a highly touted film which was selected as the Romanian entry for Best International Feature at the 93rd Academy Awards. Control is about a blaze that occurred in October 15, 2015 which was made much worse by the extreme corruption of the pharmaceutical  and medical industries in that country.

The fire which occurred in a dance club called "Colectiv" (the title is an Americanization of the club name) ended up taking the lives of 27 people and injuring 180. The club had no fire exit as was legally required (someone was probably bribed) and people trampled over each other to escape. A journalistic investigation brought about certain terrible realities about the way the health care system was run there.

The film’s title is also somewhat ironic because the main players in the health care system never worked together well as a collective for the benefit of their patients: they all just seemed to be following their own greed and self-interest. Within four months of the catastrophe, another 37 people died because of the ineptness of the health care system. The whole story was journalist named Catalin Tolontan to put together a team to do an extensive investigation.

His team hears outrageous stories about how most of the patients died of infections rather then burns. The hospitals were using disinfectants that were so diluted that (only 10% active ingredients instead of the 90% as the bottles indicated) they were utterly ineffective, and the doctors were using infected scalpels on the patients, so that the corrupt pharmaceutical industry (Hexi Pharma) could get richer. Then the manufacturers bribed the politicians in power so they could stay in business without incident. An article is published in the Gazette and it is eventually revealed that the corruption and callousness go much deeper than anyone even suspected, and it led to the whole ruling party, the Social Democrats losing their dominance in Romania.

The film is more than just an expose of reprehensible government corruption. It is as much about the journalistic process (which has taken some hard knocks over the last decade) as much as such classic investigative films as Spotlight and All the President’s Men. We see the editors putting increasing demands on the journalists when they get hungry for a headline, conscientious conversations in conference rooms, and newspaper writers slaving over their PC’s to get the truth out at considerable risk.

The stuff they uncover is horrifying. Footage shows a patient with a wound filled with maggots that eventually killed him because no hospital personnel could be bothered to clean him in the whole week he was there. A patient who was still breathing was covered up and treated as if he were dead even though he was still breathing. A mayor who has ties to the corruption is found dead before he gets a chance to testify. After the health care minister is deposed, the new chief Vlad (a conscientious former health care advocate) encounters seemingly insurmountable walls of corruption. And even after everyone knew that the disinfectants were diluted and useless, they were still used and there was no legal mechanism to take them quickly off the shelves.

It ends just as it began, with a man weeping over his dead son. Audience members will find it difficult not to feel sick at the depths people will sink to and how many people have to die so that a few bureaucrats and corporate execs can make a little extra profit. Collective paints a very dark portrait of the institutions we rely on most for protection which often put their own preservation above everything including their patient’s lives . But without correctives like this film and hard-hitting journalism there is little help that the situation will ever get better.

Directed by:    Alexander Nanau
Written by:    Alexander Nanau and Antoaneta Opris
Starring:     Razvan Lutac, Mirela Neag, Catalin Tolontan
Released:    02/28/2020 (Romania) and 11/20/2020 (USA)
Length:    109 minutes
Rating:    Not Rated
Available On:  
Amazon Prime On Demand and on the Gene Siskel Center web site:


For more writings by Vittorio Carli go to
and plus look for his recent book Tape Worm Salad with Olive Oil for Extra Flavor.

COLLECTIVE ©  2020 HBO Europe
Review © 2020 Alternate Reality, Inc.