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Romanian film ‘Collective’ shows us the very best of journalism and deserves an Oscar – or maybe even two

In an age where democracy is under attack from within, proper reporting has never been more important

James Moore
Tuesday 16 March 2021 14:52 GMT
‘Collective’ highlights the work of journalists at Romanian newspaper ‘Gazeta Sporturilor’ following a fire at a Bucharest nightclub in 2015
‘Collective’ highlights the work of journalists at Romanian newspaper ‘Gazeta Sporturilor’ following a fire at a Bucharest nightclub in 2015 (Venice Film Festival)
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This year’s Academy Award nominations contained a welcome surprise. Collective didn’t just pick up Romania’s first Oscar nod (for Best Documentary), it garnered its second, too (for Best International Feature).

Cinematic documentaries have to do some hard running to find an audience, let alone think about awards. But Alexander Nanau’s film is deserving on both fronts.

Collective highlights the work of journalists at Romanian newspaper Gazeta Sporturilor following a fire at a Bucharest nightclub in 2015. The blaze took 27 lives but that was just the start. Many more people were killed in unsanitary hospitals while being treated for their burns. It is the investigation into what went on in those hospitals – the reporters discovered that diluted disinfectant was being used at medical facilities across Romania – that is the subject of the film.

Led by the implacable and fiercely independent Catalin Tolontan, the newspaper took on a job others wouldn’t, exposing a scandal that led to mass protests and the collapse of a governing coalition in the process.

The nominations for Collective matter outside of the film world. The sort of work done by the reporters from Gazeta Sporturilor – the holding of the rich and powerful to account – is under threat across the western world through the sniping of politicians and, in particular, through the incitement of their followers and shills.

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The US has just rid itself of a president who referred to those seeking to call him to account as “enemies of the people”. Donald Trump regularly characterised critical coverage as “fake news”. And he was heard. At his rallies, reporters were verbally, and sometimes physically, abused and assaulted.

In urging President Joe Biden to restore “US press freedom leadership”, the Committee to Protect Journalists said the Trump administration did “tremendous damage outside the US, where autocrats and dictators have denounced critical media as ‘fake news’ while jailing record numbers of journalists”.

It’s a sad fact that those attacks are continuing via Trump’s proxies. In the week prior to the announcement of the Oscar nominations, Tucker Carlson, a star anchor for Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, chose to use his platform to launch a verbal assault on Taylor Lorenz, a reporter for The New York Times.

Lorenz’s crime: highlighting the online harassment she has received through her reporting. The Times noted that Carlson’s rant seemed designed to incite his five million or so viewers to pile on (and they duly did), calling it a “calculated and cruel tactic, which he often deploys to unleash a wave of harassment and vitriol at his intended target”.

Don’t imagine this sort of thing is confined to investigative journalism in the US. It’s here, too. Last November, The Independent’s Lizzie Dearden described the “torrent of abuse and vitriol” she was subjected to for writing about the activities of the extreme right in Britain. At first it was online but chillingly it spilled over into the real world.

Female journalists are particularly vulnerable to this sort of thing. I remember describing the venomous tweets I have received in response to some of my columns to a colleague, only to quickly pipe down when she matter of factly talked about being threatened with getting stabbed.

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Collective shows incidences of Trumpian tactics from some of the politicians and their friends deservedly made to feel uncomfortable by Gazeta Sporturilor’s work. It also shows why, in an age where democracy is under attack from within, this sort of journalism is so important. Without it, who would have spoken for the victims and their families? Their grief would have been brushed aside while other families would have been left in the same position. The film points an accusing finger at the real “enemies of people”.

So yes, here’s hoping that Collective is recognised in at least one of its two categories. It might send a message. That said, it’s facing an uphill climb in the Best Documentary category against Amazon’s admittedly superb Time, which follows Fox Richardson’s fight for the release of her husband from a 60 year sentence for armed robbery. In the International Feature category, Collective would have to scale an even higher summit. Danish film Another Round isn’t the shortest price favourite among the various categories, but the award would seem to be its to lose.

Still, the Gazeta team succeeded against the odds before and brought a government to its knees. Spoiler alert: the film’s ending isn’t a particularly happy one. The “people” don’t always recognise who their enemies are.

But an Oscar – or even two – would be a different sort of happy ending. At the very least, the renewed spotlight from the nominations ought to make the villains of this piece shift uncomfortably one more time.

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