Welcome back to the Directors UK Podcast! This episode is a fascinating exploration of factual filmmaking, as director Alexander Nanau is joined by Orlando von Einsiedel to discuss his masterful documentary, Collective.
Orlando quizzed Alexander about his approach to storytelling, the reaction to the documentary, and whether film has the power to create change.
This episode was recorded on the very day that Alexander found out he was nominated for the Oscars in Best Documentary Feature and Best International Feature Film.
You can also read a full transcript of the conversation below.
Orlando von Einsiedel: I’m Orlando. I’m a film-maker, and what a pleasure it is to have Alexander here, who didn’t just get nominated for one Oscar today — he got nominated for two, in Documentary and Best International feature. Alexander, how are you feeling?
Alexander Nanau: Thanks a lot for having me, first of all. It’s amazing. I mean, it’s a really good thing to happen for this story because, you know, since we launched the film we saw that it connects so many people around the world, and it really is of concern for so many societies. At the beginning of the day today I was prepared not to be nominated at all, because all the films that were shortlisted are really incredible — but what a joy. We are very happy.
Orlando von Einsiedel: What has your day entailed since you found out?
Alexander Nanau: Oh, we had part of the team over. We watched the announcement together, and now we have most of the protagonists and the whistleblowers with us.
Orlando von Einsiedel: Did you all watch together? Was everyone in the same room?
Alexander Nanau: Yes, we watched with the team, and we were in a Zoom call with our extended team.
Orlando von Einsiedel: Wonderful, and hugely deserved. What was the genesis of this project? Where did this begin for you, and why this story?
Alexander Nanau: Basically, when the Collctiv fire happened it really shook the country. It was a national tragedy, and it really felt like a turning point. We instantly had the widest demonstrations since the revolution in Romania, and the thing is that it was the first time, really, that a very young generation that took to the streets. A young generation that basically protested against a political class that was associated with corruption and incompetence, and was in a way a political class tolerated by their parents’ generation. And they demanded, for the first time, that this political class step back and claim back their society, because they wanted to live by the right values.
At the same time, although we had all these demonstrations, the health authorities and the politicians basically started a very well-organised manipulation campaign, where they said that the Romanian healthcare system was on top of things, that they could treat all the burns patients — and they were basically lying all the time. They even lied that the burns patients were given surgery in a newly-opened burns unit, which journalists that we followed found out was closed down. And I was looking for a way to do an observational film about what’s going on in society, and was looking for the right characters to shadow, and to follow, and to see those stories through their eyes, because I really believe in the power of observation. And, although we started also to follow victims and the parents of the victims, once we saw the investigations of the journalists we realised that that might be the best way to do it: through the eyes of journalists that investigate this abuse of power.
Orlando von Einsiedel: I mean, I think one of the really extraordinary things as the film progresses is the kind of revelations that you’re discovering as a film-maker, and as the journalists uncovering it. It’s like you’re watching Watergate unfolding. And there must have been so many moments where you, as the film-making team, were thinking, ‘What is going on? What are we stumbling upon?’ Can you just talk about how that felt? I think from the outside it looks like luck, but I strongly believe that if you’re there, if you put yourself in those positions for long periods of time, luck happens. You make your own luck. But tell me what you think.
Alexander Nanau: Yes, it’s the magic of observation, you know? Once you focus on something, it’s incredible how things happen. The journalists were not open from the very beginning, so at our first meeting, when I asked them, ‘Could we shadow your work?’, they rejected it. They said very clearly, ‘A newsroom has to stay a protected space. We have to protect whistleblowers, we have to protect information and our colleagues.’ So, I said to Catalin Tolontan, the head of the team, ‘I know but if you happen to start a new investigation into the healthcare system, please give it a second thought.’ And he called me one day and said, ‘Listen, we are onto something, but we don’t know if we’re right. I can’t tell you what it is, but we can try.’ The interesting thing is that, once I entered this space of the journalist, I became aware that I just wanted to understand, step by step, what the work of investigative journalists really is — from the moment they get information to the high pressure and responsibility to make information public. And we didn’t know what was happening, because they would not tell us, so I had to put the puzzle pieces together myself while we were filming. Even the thing with the company that was diluting the disinfectants, I had to put that together myself. But, once we were in this vortex, my only thought was, ‘I really have to capture it in the best cinematic way, and manage to pass it over to the viewer with the same sense of intensity and emotion that we are experiencing while filming it.’
Orlando von Einsiedel: I find that really interesting, because I think most documentary films involve a certain level of journalism. But this film has enormous stakes, and there’s a real investigative backbone. Your previous films, Alexander, they’re not obvious pieces of journalism in a classical sense, and I wanted to know how you’ve managed to deal with this. Because, clearly, if you were to get something wrong, there are very powerful people involved. You could have been up for libel, and the credibility of the film could be in question. How did you navigate that?
Alexander Nanau: You know, I see myself as a film-maker, so I’m not a journalist, and I was aware from the very beginning that I’m just shadowing the work of journalists, learning from them, and learning what their profession implies. I never saw myself as more than that. I was also aware that, whatever we would publish would be published two or three years later, because we didn’t know for how long we would have to film, and to edit. And what we put in the film was made public before. That said, for sure the were stakes for us as film-makers. Like, I really wanted to be there when they met whistleblowers. We see that in fiction films, but we really have to see it one-to-one, as it happens in real life. How does a journalist meet a whistleblower? How does this relationship happen? And basically we had an understanding with the journalists that they would tell us the day when whistleblowers would come in. ‘Tonight whistleblowers will come in.’ And they said, ‘You have five minutes to explain to them and, if they let you film them, it’s fine. If not, please leave the newsroom and let us do our work.’ And we were lucky that these courageous women who were the whistleblowers that you see in the film accepted that, and I explained the process and that it will take two or three years maybe. And also that, once we have edited the film, we will watch their scenes together. At that moment in time, they can decide if they want to go public as being the whistleblowers or not, which was a huge risk for our production as a whole. But luckily, as you could see, they were courageous enough to say, ‘Sure, we’re going to go public.’
Orlando von Einsiedel: That’s fantastic, and it’s obviously great that you had that level of trust with them, and that you took the time to do that. I want to know about the safety for them, since the film’s come out, and also for you guys as a team while you were doing this.
Alexander Nanau: Yes. We also had our own investigative team once we started the development of the project, so we also had contact with whistleblowers inside the system and knew a lot of things. And I also had a source inside the secret service that told me that I was being surveilled and that my phone was tapped. I didn’t believe it at first, but then the source just read out to me the days and the people I talked to, so that’s the moment where I realised, ‘Okay, good, so they’re really surveilling us.’ I didn’t see that as my life being in danger, but I for sure saw it as a danger to the production. So, as a production we organised so that every evening we would come in into the studio and we would copy the footage on several sources. And, every day, several sources would go into hiding into different places that we also didn’t know about, and then, from time to time, we would fly the footage out of the country. That’s the way we organised. And the whistleblowers basically are still working where they work, but for sure they got marginalised in the system. I learned something. We might have a very romanticised view of whistleblowers and what their life is, and the level of satisfaction once they really reach a good thing with blowing the whistle, but the life of whistleblowers is... they do so much good, like in our case they saved hundreds if not thousands of lives by eliminating this company, and really starting a move in the whole society, and a different trust in the press, but they themselves get marginalised. They get exposed by the partisan press that belongs to power, or is close to power, and they are shouted out as traitors, as lunatics. So their life is not happy, so to say. But, you know, I think that the film offers a kind of protection, because they are known, and now the whole world knows about them.
Orlando von Einsiedel: How has the film been received in Romania, Alexander?
Alexander Nanau: Pretty well. As you can imagine, there were voices, and propaganda voices, that tried to attack it, but basically we had two weeks in cinemas before they closed down because of the pandemic, and we really were surprised about the age group that was there. I think most viewers were between 16 and 30, because this is really the generation that needs to have an answer about the society they are going to spend their lives in. You feel it in Britain, with Brexit, you know: ‘Will we continue here or not?’ But the thing is that, although we had only two weeks, we had around 25,000 admissions, which is huge for Romania because the bar was set at around 5,000 admissions for a documentary ther previously. Then, once the pandemic hit, we went on with the film on the HBO platform, and it became the most-viewed film in 2020 on HBO, before any Hollywood film. So, many, many people have seen it, and it became kind of a reference to the point of no return in society, where people decided: ‘Corruption and incompetence, that’s enough. We have to change it.’
Orlando von Einsiedel: Fantastic. I wanted to talk about your method. I’ve read that when you go into a story you don’t have an idea of what the arc might be from the beginning, and I think that’s quite different to me. I like to come up with something, maybe just to make myself feel comfortable and confident. I mean, I’m always wrong and it completely changes! But talk to me about your style and how you work.
Alexander Nanau: Yes, the risk is very high, but that’s also the attractive thing about it, and the thing that gives you really the strength to go on. Basically, the most important thing is to decide on the people you follow. And, once you start filming with them, you try to find out: ‘So, are these people rich enough in terms of personality? Does their personality stand up to being a character in a feature-length film?’ And, once you are sure of that, you just start trusting in your feeling. And every morning we get out of the car to film, we think, ‘Okay, so I shouldn’t try to control this. I just have to see what life brings.’ And I had to learn that while my films, because in my last film, Toto And His Sisters, I really had this crisis of ‘I have no clue what’s going to happen. I don’t know if I have a film. How will I explain it to everybody who invested in this film?’ All I can do is trust it and focus on how I will photograph it in the best possible way, and in the most respectful way for the characters I chose to shadow for such a long time.
Orlando von Einsiedel: I love hearing that. Obviously there’s a lot of pressure on people, especially at pitching stage when they’re trying to get funding, to be able to say exactly what the film is, and have the confidence that they can definitely capture it. And I guess one of the things I hope comes out of the success of your film is that more people will be able to go in to pitch these things and say, ‘Well, this character’s brilliant. We’re just going to follow them and you’ve got to trust me, and trust the character, and trust the world that we’re entering, rather than me telling you what the whole structure is.’
Alexander Nanau: One of the most important tools for me is that, after I film for two, three or four months, I stop and go into my editing room and really take a long time, sometimes even a month, to edit a pitching trailer. Something between three and five minutes. And if I, for myself, am able to see a story in that five minutes, then I have enough confidence to go out and look for more money, or go out and really do the film. So, I really have this tool at a certain point — mostly after three, four months in the process — where I have to just cut everything off, go into the editing room, and understand for myself: ‘Is there a film or not?’
Orlando von Einsiedel: One of the things, Alexander, that I think is so interesting about Collective is its pure observational style. That’s scary, that’s brave. I mean, did you even film interviews as a back-up?
Alexander Nanau: We did in the beginning. I never thought that I would use them, but in the very beginning, before I had the okay of the journalists, we were talking to doctors, victims, politicians. And I lit them well just to be sure, but I never intended to use them. It’s a combination of just wanting to be sure and really seeing who is strong on camera, basically.
Orlando von Einsiedel: We have questions coming in, so I’m going to ask you some of the questions that have been asked. How much pressure did the Government put on you once it became known you were making this documentary?
Alexander Nanau: They didn’t putty any on while we were making it. They were surveilling us, but I think that there is no real documentary culture in Romania, and I think that they didn’t understand. They didn’t understand why somebody was filming all this stuff, not releasing anything, being next to the journalists that have the most insight and not releasing a thing. So, I think that they just didn’t take me too seriously. I know that, for example, they called in people from the Ministry of Health to ask them about what I am doing there, you know, why am I there and what exactly am I filming. But they just didn’t understand. The pressure came basically after the film became more and more known, also internationally. First they tried to stop the media talking about it, and then the good thing is AMPAS has a very clear rule that any country has to nominate a film for the Oscars by an independent committee. So, basically it was the Romanian Film Fund who named the committee that was made out of five film critics — but they cast a secret vote and voted for our film. Once that was known, they tried to stop the national funding for the campaign. They looked for any way to reverse the decision. They looked in any AMPAS rule to try to reverse it, and they were told ‘It’s already so well-known that it will be an international scandal.’ Those were the things they tried, but I think they were taken by surprise. They didn’t understand what we were doing.
Orlando von Einsiedel: Has there been a dialogue? Have they tried to reach out since? I guess there must be a whole load of upset people somewhere about today’s announcement.
Alexander Nanau: A dialogue? No, basically no. The only politicians that wrote to me are politicians that belong to a new generation, new parties that were formed after Collective. You know, young people that got into politics and really won over and are starting to fight corruption very openly. And those are the only people that wrote to me.
Orlando von Einsiedel: There’s a question here, Alexander, about whether or not you direct the scenes in any shape or form when you’re filming. Or are you purist and just observe?
Alexander Nanau: No, I purely observe. I really love this process of basically winning over people’s trust, making them understand that you won’t judge them, and getting them to a point where they really have the courage to be themselves in my presence. Then my job is really the job of a street photographer. Just to capture, in a fast way, with available light, the tension and the emotions that are in the room.
Orlando von Einsiedel: Quick question here about your approach to editing pure observation scenes. Can you talk to us about the edit more generally, your style and how this film was edited.
Alexander Nanau: Basically I start from scenes that I felt during the filming process might contain the core of things, although I cannot put my finger on it. For this film, for example, I knew what we filmed was what Hannah Arendt describes as the banality of evil, right? So, this is, let’s say, a guiding line. But then I just start to edit things down to understand them, and I start to connect dots by theme or by cross-referencing. But, since my last film, I basically started to understand how to work with multi-character storylines. In this film, the biggest challenge was to change main character in the middle of the film. I knew it would be a hard thing to do, but then I thought, ‘If life is writing this incredible script already, and I myself feel it as a natural change of character once I have access to the core of power, then there will be a way, even in the editing room.’ But it was a long way, for sure. It took some time to understand what it means to connect the viewer to the attitudes that can pass over a baton from one character to the other.
Orlando von Einsiedel: How long were you cutting for, Alexander?
Alexander Nanau: With watching the footage, and also watching hundreds of hours of footage from TV stations, because we wanted to be objective and really see how other people covered all this... one and a half years, it took one and a half years to edit it.
Orlando von Einsiedel: Yes, amazing. This is a conversation that a lot of directors are watching, so there are a lot of questions about funding. Especially with an open-ended observation film like this, how did easy was it for you to attract funding?
Alexander Nanau: Luckily enough, it was not so hard here. I mean, we invested our own money, and HBO Europe invested some money, and then we pitched the project at IDFA in the central pitch. And we were lucky to also get state funding from our national film fund, the co-producer got funding, then the Sundance Institute came on board pretty early. But for sure that had also to do with the fact that my last film had some resonance. If my last film hadn’t had resonance, I’m not sure that anybody would have trusted me with this very complicated theme.
Orlando von Einsiedel: There’s a question here from Bill. Did you share the scepticism about the Minister the first time you met him, and then how did you earn his trust?
Alexander Nanau: Yes, I did share it. I mean, the thing is that my first idea, when I thought about making a film, was basically the idea to make a film about power. How does power relate to people? And, once I heard that he was being interviewed for the job, and I knew that he was independent, he was from outside politics, he was a patients’ activist, I thought that that might be my chance. I think he accepted to meet me after ten days. When I met him, I basically met a young man, he was 33 years old, and formed a team of brave professionals around him, young people from around the world, Romanians that had emigrated and were all working in different health sectors in other countries. He said: ‘Listen, the most important thing to us is transparency. And we strongly believe that we have to give people back the trust in the healthcare system, because it’s even written in the Romanian Constitution that one of the basic rights is the right to health. So, I will allow you to film as you like, but be aware that most of the people in this Ministry will hate us both for this’. And that was the understanding. He would let me film, we would ask people when they came in if they wanted to be filmed, and he never asked for any say in the edit. We never gave protagonists a say in the edit, if it’s not about the safety of people, or information that is just for within the Ministry.
Orlando von Einsiedel: I suppose, on that note Alexander, how are the main characters in the film? How are they all doing today?
Alexander Nanau: After these investigations, Romania entered a time of change, and new political parties were formed, and young people came to vote and voted these reformative parties in. And the Minister we see in the film became part of these parties two years ago and, since last Christmas, he is back in office. So, he is again the Minister of Health, and we have scandals on a daily basis, because he is part of a coalition that’s working to make everything transparent. And, because they made data transparent, the press discovered that there is a political structure that was vaccinated before essential workers, and they used the vaccine to vaccinate their families. They try to attack him all the time, and to bring him down because he’s transparent but, luckily enough, the press is strong enough in the meantime, and they feel the pressure of society, so we’ll have to see how long this will work.
Orlando von Einsiedel: A question of my own. I think one of the things that spoke to me about the film was seeing all the parallels in it with Britain and other places around the world, and this increasing sense that politicians aren’t just working for us as citizens, but are working for themselves. How much was there a consciousness in you while editing that this aspect of the film could speak so widely? Can you talk to us about that?
Alexander Nanau: Yes, so when I started the film, as a film-maker I thought, ‘Oh, this is really a local story. Who will really care’, because you always think about what can be the outreach of the story you follow. But, at the same time, I thought, ‘I started this project, and it is such a crucial thing in Romanian society that I will invest my time and knowledge to make the best film about it.’ But then, while we moved into 2016, the first thing that hit was Brexit, right? So, I remember going to bed in the evening. We were, like, ‘This will never go through. It’s too insane, you know? Who could ever believe these politicians, Farage and the rest of the bunch?’ And, in the morning, my partner woke me up and said ‘Brexit went through.’ And I was petrified. I couldn’t get out of bed, and that was the moment when I understood, ‘Jesus, the whole world is starting to transform into this politics of populism, and manipulation, and incompetence.’ But the Trump campaign started to gather speed, and so while we were doing that, we understood what was happening, and that this Romanian story really had a wider relevance. Even in the editing room, I decided to eliminate things where you would see in the newsroom they were watching world politics, because I thought, ‘This is something that will transform the world, but if we put faces onto it like Trump, Brexit and so on, people might think, “Oh, that’s a singular thing.”‘ And it was a conscious decision to eliminate these things, so that people really could relate to their own systems and to their own societies that were starting to fail, or where the social contract was starting to erode.
Orlando von Einsiedel: You know Alexander, the film is such a powerful documentation of so many different things in Romania. Apart from just screening the film and it having impact in that way, are you actually consciously working with this film to try and change things in Romania and elsewhere?
Alexander Nanau: No, I’m not. Because I really think that our job as film-makers is really to create a very personal relationship between a viewer and a film, and I think that once you start to use it as a tool, I fear it will fail. I really feel that, as I go to the cinema, or went to the cinema — hopefully I will again! — I always have such a private relationship every time with every film. And I want the same to be achieved with my films for every single viewer. But, that said, it is true that after we released the film, the number of whistleblowers in Romania exploded. But the journalists we follow in the film had, before we launched the film, around ten valid whistleblower leads towards corruption, incompetence and so on. And, once the film was out, that went up to 120 per day, so that they could hardly distribute all the things in the newsroom. So, it did influence people. The courage of these women, of these whistleblowers, did inspire people. But I never thought about it like, ‘Oh, let’s do a film to change things.’ I just think that our job is to bluntly show reality in the most authentic way.
Orlando von Einsiedel: But are you changed, then, from this experience? Because, you know, a lot of the films that I work on, when there’s an issue that’s at the heart of them, we work with the film to do that. So I, hand on my heart, do believe films can change things. But a lot of people don’t believe that all. How do you feel, having gone on this journey?
Alexander Nanau: Oh, I think that it can change people. I don’t mean that I don’t believe films can change things, I just don’t think that we should start by thinking ‘Oh, let’s make a film that can be a lesson.’ Because, basically, whatever you put into a film is yourself, right? And every film I do, and also this observational way of doing it, is basically because I just have questions, I just want to learn things, and I think that the most honest thing is just to let these questions open themselves for the viewers. So, I do think that films can be inspiring. Some people will change, like they will become whistleblowers, and others, like younger people who write to me saying they want to go into journalism now. They will remember something that made them connect with it or something. So, sure, it’s such a powerful tool.
Orlando von Einsiedel: I’ve got a question from Josh. He says, ‘You should win the Oscar.’
Alexander Nanau: Thank you very much!
Orlando von Einsiedel: Obviously, it would be great for you and the team, and Romanian cinema, but do you think those in Government who have tried to frustrate you getting the Oscar, will they change their tune if you bring the prize home?
Alexander Nanau: It’s hard to say. I think that, from my experience, some people, even if they’re young politicians, they’re just too poisoned already. I think that the best thing that can happen is that they feel the pressure from the people that appreciate the characters in the film, and what the characters have done. I do think — and I think that’s visible in the film — that all of us, at any point in our lives, can make a decision about our attitude to life. At the same time, having made documentary films for several years now, I also think in a way that, from a certain point on, people can’t really be changed.
Orlando von Einsiedel: Alexander, I think we’ve run out of time but on behalf of everyone who’s tuned in, thank you so much. I wish you a lot of luck over the next few weeks.