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Incendiary: Director Alexander Nanau on His Explosive Investigative Documentary, Collective

Tedy Ursuleanu in Collective (courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

On October 30, 2015, at the Bucharest venue Colectiv, metalcore headliner Goodbye to Gravity bellowed lyrics denouncing widespread Romanian corruption, inadvertently foreshadowing what happened next. Fireworks were released, the highly combustible club went up in flames and people stampeded for the only, half-closed exit—Colectiv had received an operating license without also obtaining a permit from the fire department. Responsibility lay in part with the mayor of Section 4, the administrative district governing Bucharest, and protesters quickly called for his resignation, as well as that of the prime minister and minister. Inspections of more than 1,000 venues resulted in excess of 3,200 similar violations—evidence of corruption on a massive scale. 

The situation quickly became exponentially worse: While 26 people died at Colectiv, another 38 subsequently died in hospitals. Many were victims of a lack of adequate burn treatment facilities in the country—hospitals refused to sign off on flying victims to other countries for proper care, trying to maintain the illusion of a competent infrastructure that could handle the damage another wing of the government had enabled. As protests continued, an investigation spearheaded by journalist Cătălin Tolontan of the Sports Gazette uncovered ever-widening circles of corruption among hospital and municipal administrators and the ministry of health, all of whom attempted to cover for the pharmaceutical industry when it was revealed the disinfectants they sold were heavily diluted, worse than useless and likely contributed to hospital deaths from bacterial infection.

Alexander Nanau’s documentary Collective (Colectiv) opens with footage of victims and their families—a recurring interstitial presence—but the film redirects halfway through from one main track to another. The first rides along as Tolontan’s team investigates: staking out pharmaceutical factories, testing disinfectants, pushing back against implausible government claims that their countertests of the disinfectants turned out 95 percent fine. Nanau transitions from the newsroom to the Ministry of Health itself, where incoming minister of health, technocrat Vlad Voiculescu, pays more than lip service to transparency—he actually believes in and facilitates it. As part of this goal, he grants Nanau high-level access to ministry meetings and daily struggles with career-level bureaucrats who hang themselves in real time—one woman bluntly tells Voiculescu that neither he nor his team are to propose ideas, but simply to wait until their in-house, clearly compromised experts can provide guidance.

Nanau was born in Romania in 1979 but moved with his parents to Germany in 1990—his point of view on Romanian society is that of an outsider who’s returned with a fresh vantage point. His first film, Peter Zadek inszeniert Peer Gynt (2006), was shot in Germany as part of his film school training; his next three films, made back home, form a sort of verité trilogy of Romanian infrastructural dysfunction. The World According to Ion B.(2009) is an hour-long profile of Ion Bârlădeanu, a self-taught collage artist who worked in secret throughout the Ceauşescu years and 1990s. Falling onto hard times and resigned to street-living alcoholism, Bârlădeanu was rediscovered and championed by gallery owner Dan Popescu. The documentary, covering Bârlădeanu’s rocky, start-stop transition from self-wounding homeless indigent to recognized outsider artist, ultimately had a happy ending—he’s still prospering in his unlikely third act, while the film itself won an International Emmy Award (and reached Angelina Jolie, who invited Bârlădeanu and Nanau to meet on the set of The Tourist). But World According also serves as a portrait of a country with seemingly even fewer social safety nets than the United States, with one man dwelling in the backyard of a building whose defective garbage chutes he regularly cleans for minimal pay. In Nanau’s 2014 breakthrough, Toto and His Sisters, the titular brother and his two siblings are part of the Roma people, though that identification’s never made onscreen. It’s an unblinking profile of systemic failure, and the implications of the family’s plight extend beyond Bârlădeanu’s: scenes of people queued up outside the nearest jail, waiting to briefly talk to loved ones as they’re transferred in the courtyard from local custody onto a bus leading to their next penal destination, implies a heartbreaking daily familiarity. There are teachers and social workers along the way, but they can’t contain the broader breakdown (nor the prejudices behind it). The film is grounded in its subjects’ immediate experience, but its ramifications spread ever-outward. 

Collective indicts wider-reaching, nameable and high-ranking spheres of national Romanian life. Together, Ion B., Toto and Collective constitute a continual, expansive series on corruption in Romania—as such, they’re nonfiction companion pieces to many of the key films of the Romanian New Wave, whose characters often either actively perpetuate or frustratedly combat corruption’s reach. The visual language of the New Wave’s first works was rooted in a handheld, verité-simulating style codified by DP Oleg Mutu in Cristi Puiu’s 2005 The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu and Cristian Mungiu’s 2007 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Many of the New Wave’s key directors—including Puiu, Corneliu Porumboiu (Police, Adjective) and Radu Jude (Everybody in Our Family)—have since moved in different formal directions. Nanau’s work finds new, nonfiction ways to complement and expand that initial documentary-simulating visual language while also providing supplementary, continually updated evidence buttressing what’s shown in the New Wave’s films. As such, Collective is, among other things, a real-world, near-present update on the nonexistent 1980s medical system for abortions shown in 4 Months and its across-the-board decrepit mid-aughts state in Lăzărescu.

Collective, out in May from Magnolia Pictures, is Nanau’s first release to get US distribution.

Filmmaker: I didn’t get a chance to see your first film, the Peer Gynt documentary. I know it’s in 1.33 and shot in Germany, and I presume it lives within the space of the theater.

Nanau: Peter Zadek was the most famous German theater director, known for the fact that nobody is allowed to enter his rehearsals, not even the theater manager. But he was my mentor for several years; I was his first assistant director. When I started film school, we used to meet sometimes in the evening, talk and take a walk, and he said that he was in a new phase of working with an ensemble. And, although he never lets anybody into, [let alone] film his rehearsals, he would trust me to, if I want, try to make a film about his work with the actors, to capture this certain moment in his rehearsals on Peer Gynt. I was familiar with the play because I also prepared [it] with the ensemble—the preparation of these plays always took months. I think that’s how I discovered that I enjoy observational filmmaking. I filmed rehearsals, then built the film in a process of about six months. That was during my first year in film school.

Filmmaker: I didn’t know about your theater background. Do you feel like that informed how you think about making observational filmmaking?

Nanau: Oh, yes. Actually, it was the most important school for me because, in theater, you have time to connect with actors, to sit and watch them. You learn directing: what it means to communicate with people based on the relationship you have with them, and what nonverbal communication means in directing people—having a feeling of where people go, what their state of mind is in a certain moment. What I learned there, I apply completely in observational filmmaking when I film people. The way I connect to people, the way I feel pretty well where they are emotionally and the right way to capture it, it’s a combination of my appetite for photography and the theater work I’ve done.

Whatever I do, I do on the fly. I get challenged by an instant situation, or light or mood, or emotion, or dialogue or action. I feel challenged by having to decide in milliseconds how to make the decoupage, how to capture a certain moment. I define it a bit as being a street photographer. As time evolves, in my head I start to build dramaturgy and think about what’s happening, how I capture it and can use it in dramatic storytelling

In observational documentary filmmaking—this is a very technical part about it—the camerawork in many films is always a small step behind the characters. It always feels like the camera is chasing the action of life. Here, I could use my theater work, in knowing that if you’re highly focused on a character, on the people you have a strong relationship with that you follow, you can really feel how [they] will move in the next moment. You can implement that in the camera work, so that your camera gets in complete sync with the character and his actions. Then, you can start to describe him with the camera in a way that you don’t feel that somebody’s chasing or a bit behind.

Filmmaker: Can you talk about the decision to come back to Romania to work on the next three projects?

Nanau: I gave up my German base. I was in film school and read an article that Romania is going to be part of the European Union. I hadn’t been in Romania since, I don’t know, 15 or more years. I found it quite curious and strange because I didn’t feel that Romania was a country ready to join the Western world. So, out of curiosity, I went back [around 2005] to see what’s there and got stuck. The country was in a vibe of restart. I met a lot of young people [who] were highly creative in all different sorts of ways, from painters to filmmakers. It was a vibrant time. I fell in love with that, and I also fell in love with a girl, and I stayed. I started to build up my production company, and by accident, I stumbled on the first subject, which was the one about the collage artist.

Filmmaker: When Toto and His Sisters started, [producer] Bianca Oana was working with an NGO, and she was thinking about how to make a film about the Roma community. You found your subjects and married them to her idea. And in Collective, there was again a situation that was happening, and you attached yourself to it. I don’t know if there was an idea first to make a film about corruption in Romania and then an example emerged, or whether other people were already thinking somebody should be making a documentary about this specific incident while it was unfolding.

Nanau: The first thought we had with Hanka [Kastelicová, executive producer of documentaries for HBO Europe] was the incident in Romania. It was like a national trauma that started mass demonstrations. For the first time in a post-Communist society, it started what we thought would be an uproar of the young generation against the old political class keeping the country back—there was a big gap. The first thought was, it’s a young democracy. I had my upbringing in Germany. I understood quite well how the German society transformed from the Second World War into a liberal society. I felt like [Romania’s] such a vulnerable, fresh society that I was curious to see if I could understand the mechanics, the relationship between power and citizens—how all these shape each other, and how democracy is shaped. In parallel, the investigative journalists started to dig more and more into what happened with Colectiv. And with the film’s research team, we realized that the investigative press will be the best way, or best character, to follow in order to understand these mechanics. [In] the network between power and the people, the press is a really important tool in between.

Filmmaker: Over the past 15 years of work from the Romanian New Wave, a lot of these movies deal with corruption, either as the direct subject of the movie or in the backgrounds of the characters. I don’t know if you’ve thought about those works in relationship to your own work, either while making it or while pitching to other people to give context people might be familiar with.

Nanau: I thought about them, most of all because of the quality they had in representing reality—realism made on the highest level. I’m quite lucky because from Germany I learned [from] the best theater I could be part of, and in Romania, I was able to learn from the best cinema around. As an outsider, you are more sensitive to language and to tone. It’s like actors. With Toto, I wanted to see if I would be able to merge so much with the life of others in order to capture reality in an even more real way but still in a cinematic language to pass onto the viewers. So, the Romanian New Wave was not only an inspiration but also a challenge for me to take it a step further.

Filmmaker: Are any of those films particularly important to you?

Nanau: The most crucial one is for sure 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. When I came to Romania, it was the first film that struck me because it was the first time I understood the world in which my parents had to bring me up. I think it’s still the masterpiece of the New Wave.

Filmmaker: There’re three character spaces that the film operates in: the victims and relatives, the journalists, and then the space of the government. You make the decision to transition pretty cleanly and definitively from the journalists’ side to the government’s side. I don’t know if the process was that neat when you were shooting, if you were actually shooting both and then eventually let one part go, or if you discovered that in the edit?

Nanau: No. When we were shooting, I realized that we could have the chance to get inside the system to really see how it operates from inside. It’s very unusual to change, in the middle of the film, the main character and the perspective. We didn’t know if it [would] work. In the end, we realized it can work if the binding element of the two storylines is not action or information, but human attitude. You see a very similar human attitude on the two sides of the trenches.

Filmmaker: You had to stay organized and be ready to shoot at any time for about a year. How did you manage that?

Nanau: I mean, I guess every documentary filmmaker does it. You try to stay connected to your characters and also tell them, “When something important happens, let us know.” You can be sure that they will never let you know because they are not able to realize what is important or not for you for a film. The good thing was, the production office and our homes were not very far away from the newsroom or ministry. So, we could afford to be there every day or, even if we were not there for several days, pop in and see what’s going on and be ready to shoot. Many times, for example, we were in the newsroom, and because the journalists were not used to being filmed, they would say, “You know, today nothing important happened. Better leave us alone and stop for today.” I learned that these were actually the days when, in the end, something important will happen. So, we would say, “OK, we’ll leave,” and show up again in 15 minutes. And although they would be pissed off, suddenly something started—some information or a new revelation came in—that made them so absorbed that it was fine. We could just film on. When the government comes out with their own tests around the disinfectants, there’s a very tense moment with them when they’re sitting on the floor and don’t know what to do because they were afraid that the next day the government would say, “Look what the journalists did, it’s so fake,” and lie again that the disinfectants are fine. That was a moment of tension that we would have lost if we left.

Filmmaker: How did your editorial process on this go? There’re two other editors credited. Do you wait until you’re done shooting or spend some time sifting through the footage during the production?

Nanau: It’s a laborious process. The first thing to say is that I always [make] the same mistake: I start the editing process too fast after shooting, in terms of watching footage and seeing where the story is. After shooting, I would still be in the studio, and while an assistant would load in footage, I would look into it sometimes, even start playing around with color to see where the mood is. But the big organizational arc is when I decide I have to stop shooting—I have what I need or there is no more to tell. Then, we go to the editing room and start watching the dailies and start with a marking system to mark themes, or emotions, or cross-references of certain scenes between the characters. Then, we would write a kind of report: what we think the day is about, what the underlying theme might be. That way, we start to think about and understand the story. Many times, you start to understand the story in the editing room. That takes several months, maybe four, five, six. 

After that, I start putting scenes together. I start with what I think might be the core of the film. When I have several rough cuts, I have somebody come in. For the last two projects, it was [editor] George Cragg, who is British but works in France. He is wonderful with story arcs. He would watch my rough cuts and start to shuffle them around and offer me different storylines or a different combination of the story—you know, assemble a scene and put the two halves in other parts of the film. That way, we try, with a very fast editing pace, to find where the story is, what doesn’t work, how you can combine storylines. When we feel we have a direction, it’s two weeks that I’ve worked with him, or three, maximum. Then, he goes away. I’m alone again and continue editing. And then, in this case, I had Dana Bunescu come in. Dana is the most prominent editor in Romania. She is, let’s say, the mother of the most important New Wave films. She edited Lăzărescu and 4 Months. So, she is just an editing genius. When I was, pretty much toward the end, with her, we would decide upon what works, what doesn’t work, what is authentic, what is not authentic. She has incredible taste and is somebody who is reducing story to the necessary. She helps me shape it, then she goes away and I spend another two or three months doing the fine cut.

Filmmaker: Can you talk about your work on color correction?

Nanau: I do it already in editing because I’m also shooting. I have a pretty clear idea of where I want to gather the color. So, I already go with the color correction I did in Avid. I go to color correction, but our color corrector is an artist and comes with his vision. Then, we find the best way to have a color that represents the story, that represents the realism of it or whatever we want it to express.

Filmmaker: How did you articulate what the color should be for Collective?

Nanau: It’s very hard to articulate that. It’s always a matter of keeping a balance between something being cinematic—because you build the story for a cinema audience that you want to dive into your film—but still it has to never feel for the viewer as if somebody manipulated color. So, I try to avoid modern looks or what is now “in,” [such as] to have contrast-y footage. Like in photography, I try to keep it in a zone where I feel that’s the representation of that moment. I really try to disappear as a filmmaker in my films. That applies to everything: to the way the camera films, color, sound, the way you use or don’t use music.

Filmmaker: I know that Vlad Voiculescu is running for office this summer.

Nanau: He started a campaign. He would like to run for mayor.

Filmmaker: Has there been any discussion from his end about using the film to help his campaign, if he does decide to run?

Nanau: Oh, for sure. It’s a thing we talked about, and we decided very clearly that we should not interfere, in the sense that we are not going to screen the film for his campaign or audiences that he brings in. You know, we just released the film. We’re making it very clear to the press that we filmed in 2016, where we didn’t know what he was going to do. For us, what we filmed is very true, and the character we filmed is very true to what we felt was the story. But that doesn’t mean we are supporters of his campaign because that would be quite unfair coming from a power position with a powerful film. I don’t think that it’s part of the film, and I don’t think it’s our concern. We tried to make people ask themselves questions with the stories we tell. We don’t tell stories in order to tell people what to think.

Filmmaker: I don’t disagree, but I also don’t think that’s ever stopped anybody from trying to use something for their own purposes, regardless of your intent.

Nanau: Yeah, we have a very clear deal we’re not going to mix things up. He understands and is completely fair about it.

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