- Emma Simmonds
- 16 November 2020
Romanian director Alexander Nanau is behind this devastating documentary, one of the year's best
'When the press bows down to the authorities, the authorities will mistreat its citizens,' explains Romanian journalist Cătălin Tolontan. He's leading the charge against the country's corruption from the offices of the Sports Gazette, an unlikely source of investigative integrity but one all the same, who have uncovered an escalating series of public health scandals. Alexander Nanau's remarkable documentary ensures we are right in the thick of it, as we meet the men and women making a heartening, yet inevitably futile bid to put things right.
The film begins by recounting the events of 30 October 2015, where a fire in the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest killed 64 people, including 38 who died in hospital afterwards. Following mass protests, the incident prompted the resignation of the Ponta government. The poor treatment of burns victims led the Sports Gazette – whose reporters also include Mirela Neag and Razvan Lutac – and other media outlets to highlight the role diluted bleach could have played in widespread bacterial infections. Exposés relating to the misappropriation of hospital funds and phony accreditations quickly follow.
When an interim, politically independent administration is formed, it leads to former patients' rights activist Vlad Voiculescu taking over as Minister of Health, who invites the filmmakers into meetings where he tries to get to grips with the problems he has inherited. This seemingly earnest character frequently appears bewildered as he begins to grasp the magnitude of his task, asking a whistleblowing doctor, 'How the hell can all of this be solved?' And with an election on the horizon he's unlikely to be there for long.
It's entirely riveting, stomach-churning stuff, every bit as edge-of-your-seat as journalism-themed narrative cinema greats like Spotlight or All the President's Men. The shocking nature of the stories is hard to overstate – at one point, Neag describes a revelation as 'so mind-blowing, I'm afraid we'll look crazy'. The access is extraordinary too, with the film immersing you so totally in the drama you feel a smothering sense of what's at stake. It also conveys the toll this takes on those conscientious souls who are risking their safety for the greater good. You'll feel devastated for those affected, while there is much we can learn from here, the folly of letting private interests compromise life-saving services not least. It gives the current mantra 'Protect the NHS' a whole new meaning.
Available to watch on demand from Fri 20 Nov.