Biopolitics

I watched a documentary about a public health crisis. It was Collective, about the aftermath of the fire in the Collectiv nightclub in Bucharest in 2015.

Many people died in the fire, caused by a heavy metal band’s pyrotechnics setting alight flammable wall-linings, in a crowded space that only had 1 small fire exit. Many of the burns victims subsequently died of bacterial infections in the Romanian hospitals that were not adequately equipped or run to keep them safe. Street protests occurred and after many bland assurances from spokesmen that everything was as good as it could be, the administration stepped down and the country passed to a “technocrat” cabinet brought in from outside politics.

The first half of the documentary closely follows the team at Sports Gazette magazine led by Catalin Tolontan. In the Q&A session with Alexander Nanau, we are told that Tolontan is in fact one of the top investigative reporters in the country, renowned for breaking stories about corruption in football. When Nanau’s team got in touch with the paper after hearing it was working on a new investigation, there was apprehension and suspicion at first that it would be a state-surveillance operation – however, everyone seems to have got along as lots of footage was accumulated from the Gazette office and also out in the field, taking pictures of various dubious characters. What was soon revealed by whistleblowers was that the anti-bacterial disinfectants used in all the top hospitals are dangerously diluted and can’t do the job effectively; the firms that supply them are involved in complex offshore ownership arrangements to get the profits out of the country. Things get even more unpleasant when another whistleblower reveals that cleaning procedures are so bad in the burns unit that some patients have maggots in their wounds. The man who owns the medical chemicals company under closest scrutiny suddenly dies in a car accident.

Halfway through there is a major switch with the appearance of the new “technocrat” Health Minister Vlad Voiculescu, who introduces himself as a “patient’s rights activist” who has now stepped up to run the health service. His recent background was in medical charities and working abroad – he also worked in finance, but that is not mentioned in the film. In the Q&A Nanau clearly indicates his sympathies lie with him, as he sees them both part of a younger generation who want central and eastern European countries to get a dose of anti-corruption reform. The filming now shifts over and follows Voiculescu and his team close at hand. At first they can only react to the incoming revelations from the Gazette writers, but they evolve towards an action plan to deal with the systemic problems as far as they can. The corruption involves not just bribery and kickbacks, but also bogus accreditations and political favouritism.

Of course our access to Voiculescu and his world is limited. We never see him in Cabinet or how hard he might be fighting, or judge whether he ever had a chance to do anything if he wanted to. Nanau states that his team gave anyone at the Ministry the right to opt out and not be filmed if they didn’t want to; it’s not clear if the people at the end of the various phone calls we overhear got the option as well – particularly the head of the medical accreditation agency, who warns against going public and causing a collapse of confidence. Non-Romanian viewers have little context about the political culture this is occurring in, though we are shown various Social Democrat grandees ranting angrily on TV, and are to take it that Bucharest city politics are rank. The term “technocrat” is not given any definition other than a general sense of “outside experts”, but it doesn’t have great connotations in the West. Vlad uses the term “populist” dismissively once, and yet he got in power on a wave of popular anger. The suggestions that his team come up with for institutional reform include opening up hospital management to candidates all over the EU; that idea may come with other problems, and we hear an angry opponent on the radio insisting that Vlad and his people want to sell off the hospitals to foreign businesses. This is after Tolontan’s team have shown that the most corrupt manager has already silted away enough funds to build his own clinic in Switzerland.

Interleaved with the angry men in offices and at press briefings, we also have the stories of the survivors of the fire. We see the slow recovery of one disfigured body, and her adaptation to use a new robotic hand.

The film closes with the elections and the landslide win for the Social Democrats in a poll where the turnout of young voters was low; we are to sympathise with Vlad, driving away in his ministerial car for the last time, that the country isn’t ready to root out the bad actors just yet. But that was 4 years ago, and now he’s back in office again, and having to deal with new crises.

I could not describe this film as “entertaining” but the story is compelling. There is footage of the original fire and also the burns victims and their bereaved relatives, which is hard to watch. Of course Nanau clearly favours the young reformers who want to change the old country, and of course there are more factors at stake in that proposal. An entrenched and corrupt bureaucracy can also present itself as the devil you know, opposed to the risky outsiders who want to turn everything upside down. Changing the world is hard.

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