Interview with Alexander Nanau
"Romania is the fastest changing society in Europe“

Interview with the award-winning director Alexander Nanau about his new film "Colectiv"
Alexander Nanau
Regisseur Alexander Nanau © Author: Alex Galmeanu

The finalists for this year's Oscar Awards will be announced on 15th of March. "Colectiv"  by the german director Alexander Nanau is nominated this year for the best international film and the best documentary film. It tells the story of the first year after the devastating fire in the Bucharest Club Colectiv in 2015, in which 64 people died. The director follows in his movie the authorities, the victims, the whistleblowers and the journalists gradually uncovering the ailing and corrupt structures of the Romanian health system. The scandal fundamentally changed Romanian society. Alexander Nanau, born in Bucharest, emigrated to Germany in 1990.

Shortly after the events of 2015, you were right there on site and accompanied journalists with their camera as they were following the course of events. How did the shooting go, and how did you experience the events following the fire disaster?

It was practically the largest demonstration since the 1989 revolution. A new generation went out on the streets to demonstrate against a totally corrupt political class and, above all, against a society that belonged to the generation of their parents. I really wanted to understand how the relationship between the corrupt state and the citizens is shaped right from the beginning. I really felt that what I wanted to create was an observational documentary. To do this I only had to find the right protagonists who are easy to follow, so as to be able to get a glimpse of what is really going on in society right through their eyes. I also was curious to find out the nature of the relationship between the society and its citizens. In order to do this, we had to speak to the victims in advance, to the victims' parents, to doctors, to politicians, to whistleblowers and to journalists. Gradually we could very well see the incredible amount of manipulation that had taken place and was continuing to my surprise after the fire. Unfortunately, the politicians and the management of the health system including the doctors lied to the whole country in the sense that they had practically claimed that they could treat the burnt victims, that the Romanian health system was just as good as the German one, for example, and that the injured were cared for at the highest European standards. So, we understood that journalists scrutinizing the health system would likely be the right protagonists for the film. Actually, the journalists in Cătălin Tolontan's team from the newspaper Gazeta Sporturilor were the first to be there and asked the right questions to disclose the truth initially wrapped in a whole web of lies.

I think we can really state today: Romania is the fastest changing society in Europe.

Alexander Nanau
Alexander Nanau

You are a director from Berlin. Your film is currently shortlisted for two Oscar nominations. However, the film is not very well known in Germany. How can this be explained?

This can mainly be explained due to the pandemic. Before that, we didn’t manage to show the film in German cinemas. That's why the film ended up in the media library there. The film has a considerable German share, not only through my presence as a director, but above all through the contribution of MDR, one of the production partners. The film is now becoming better known because the press naturally also reports more about it because of the Oscar nomination.

In Romania you should have been awarded the Order of Merit for Culture by Presidential Office on the proposal of the Ministry of Culture. Could you explain how come that you have refused it?

I have refused it because it seemed to me that I was to be awarded this medal for my contribution to Romanian culture during the pandemic. But I have realized that I cannot accept such a medal from a state whose cultural policy failed during the pandemic. From the Ministry of Culture to the Presidential Office, culture was not supported in any way in the sense that they didn't do anything against the bankruptcy of the various cultural industries. Theaters and cinemas had to close, actors have become unemployed and, above all, cinema as an industry has been completely abandoned. There was no funding from the Romanian Film Fund in 2020. This is what generated the bankruptcy for the thousands of people behind the production companies and had a catastrophic impact in the end. I refuse to be used by the Romanian state as a symbol that culture and the state actually get along well and that the state did the right thing. It's just a procedure that is typical of the Romanian state, which pretends that everything is fine, with an incredible incompetence hiding behind every single Romanian institution.

Trailer of the Oscar-nominated film 'Colectiv' by Alexander Nanau

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Your film was positively welcomed in Romania. What has changed from your point of view after the film?

It is hard to measure what has changed in society after the film. What can be measured is that the film has been seen by a lot of young people between the ages of 16 and 30. This is the generation in Romania that really needs answers to a very simple question: do I stay in Romania or do I emigrate to countries where I do not waste my life - or is there a way to change this society? These questions always came up in all our conversations with people in the cinema during performances in the country. There was one viewer who said to me: “We had packed our bags and wanted to leave, but after this film I changed my mind. We will stay and no longer let that be done to us. It’s not us who have to leave the country, but it’s them.

The other measurable are the whistleblowers: their number exploded after the start of the film. Journalists had around 10 people a day unpacking reliable information on corruption cases. After the film release, the number increased to 120 a day. You can measure that. That's something the film was able to do - something that gets people to think about their attitudes. I am sure that in Romanian society very many people must make new decisions about their attitude every day: Do I contribute, do I take part in the game of the hidden corruption, or do I fight against it? Am I trying to make things public? The number of journalistic investigations then increased due to the whistleblowers.

The real turning point for the society was not Colectiv the movie, but the fire disaster itself and the revelations that immediately followed it. We see that there are new parties that have been formed. Fresh, younger people who come from the private sector are stepping into politics and forming parties to make a difference. We face a civil society that didn't exist before “Colectiv”, which for example builds hospitals, buys equipment for doctors, while the state continues to do what we have become used to: placing strange orders to companies that deliver an equipment, that is not even up to the standard. All modular Covid hospitals built by the state stay empty cannot be used.

I think we can really state today: Romania is the fastest changing society in Europe.