Documentarian Alexander Nanau Reflects On "Collective," A Pair Of Oscar Nominations
Alexander Nanau (photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)
Animated feature "Wolfwalkers" continues Cartoon Saloon's Academy Award nominations run, makes history for Apple

As declarations of “Fake News” seemingly run rampant worldwide, Collective (Magnolia Pictures/Participant) underscores the true value of an independent press during partisan times. The documentary--which unfolds like a detective thriller--has earned acclaim for its gripping cinematic storytelling as well as its sense of purpose in combating injustice. The film recently earned a pair of Oscar nominations, for Best International Feature and Best Feature Documentary. The recognition from the Motion Picture Academy is the first bestowed upon a film from Romania.

Produced, directed and lensed by Alexander Nanau (who co-wrote with Antoaneta Opris), Collective takes us into a tragedy which becomes even more tragic as the truth is revealed. After an explosive fire claims the lives of 27 people at Collectiv, a Bucharest nightclub, officials assure the public that the surviving victims will receive world-class care in medical facilities that are “better than in Germany.” Weeks later, a rising fatality count leads reporters at the Sports Gazette to investigate. As an insider tip reveals the culpability of Hexi Pharma, that local firm’s owner dies under mysterious circumstances and the country’s health minister quietly resigns amid the uproar. But this is only the beginning of the story as massive corruption and disregard for human life are revealed by Gazette reporters as they chronicle layer upon layer of fraud and criminal malfeasance. 

Without unfettered journalism, this travesty would have never been uncovered, leaving many more down the road to suffer and die needlessly in a broken healthcare system--just as young Collectiv burn victims never recovered, although they should have with the right care and if hospital facilities had been properly disinfected. 

Nanau is gratified over the Oscar nominations, proud that they represent a historic achievement for the filmmaking community in Romania, and hopeful that the attention will help find even a larger audience for Collective. As the documentary went deeper into what transpired, Nanau realized that the story was bigger than he originally thought due to two dynamics. For one, the horrific fire gripped the country and much of the world. People could relate to the tragedy in that one of their family members or friends could have been killed or seriously hurt. That could be their son, daughter or loved one who should have survived but didn’t due to hospital neglect.

The story also resonated politically as people in power went to great lengths to discredit journalism and appeal to a dangerous breed of populism that had taken hold. The notion that the press was the enemy of the people was gaining traction. Nanau said he realized that what the documentary reflected on a small scale was going on everywhere in a real sense. This was far more than just a Romanian story but rather indicative of something happening worldwide with the Fourth Estate and democratic institutions under siege.

Collective also posed filmmaking and emotional challenges, related Nanau. On the latter score, he cited connecting with parents whose loved ones were dead due to people who lied to them about the world-class healthcare that burn victims would receive. Nanau recalled how “very hard” it was to see their emotional pain and profound sense of loss.

Another prime challenge, continued Nanau, was trying to gain access “in a very short time by winning over the trust of the people who let us shadow their work and lives.” These included Sports Gazette editor-in-chief and sports journalist Catalin Tolontan; whistleblower Camelia Roiu, anesthetist at the Bucharest Burn Hospital; and Vlad Voiculescu, Romania’s new reform health minister whose predecessor exited when suspicions and controversy emerged over the quality of healthcare received by burn victims.

With the progressive appointment of government outsider Voiculescu, Nanau saw an opportunity to get inside the system. Voiculescu felt the need for transparency in order to rebuild trust on the part of the public. He consented to give Nanau access, including at the Ministry, with the freedom to lens and full control of when the camera went on and off. We saw Voiculescu deal not only with the crisis but also the concerted campaign against him by politicians in the populist movement.

A driving force for Nanau, no matter the challenges presented along the way, was the “moral obligation” he felt “to use my filmmaking skills to tell this story.”

Journalist Tolontan was pivotal as much of the media was too close to and chummy with those in power, and wouldn’t fully investigate. Nanau said, “They did not ask the right questions and believed the lies about the healthcare system.”  And though Tolontan’s beat was sports, he had successfully investigated corruption in that sector. Because of his trust-evoking track record of bringing injustice to public attention, a key whistleblower gravitated to Tolontan. Collective took us behind the scenes of this reportage, showing how invaluable it is to society’s well-being.

Nanau also had the advantage of the story’s very nature. It played in some respects, as alluded to earlier, as a detective/mystery thriller. Nanau described it as elements of fiction meeting reality, citing a story in a German newspaper in which the reporter likened the healthcare scandal to the Graham Greene novel “The Third Man,” in which Harry Lime (played by Orson Welles in the classic movie of the same title) is diluting penicillin and selling it in postwar Vienna. The German reporter wrote that the Hexi Pharma chief--who allegedly diluted disinfectant being used by hospitals, resulting in the deaths of burn victims--makes Lime look like an amateur in comparison. Lime ends up committing suicide when he has no escape. Similarly, the Hexi Pharma exec commits suicide in the face of growing suspicion and accusations. This parallel between fiction and reality, the high drama it entailed, lent itself to a cinematic storytelling approach for Nanau on Collective, further adding to the allure of the documentary.

The experience of making Collective carries a life lesson for Nanau. Seeing the varied characters and the choices they made, observing how they handled their lives, the choice for doing good or not, Nanau shared, “What became even stronger in me is that fact that I have no tolerance towards people who are hurting other people’s lives intentionally, zero tolerance towards corruption.” He continued, “Your own life attitude, the way you define yourself, is who you are. At any given moment in time, everyone has the chance to decide upon his or her own life attitude. We have to face it.”

Hand-drawn artistry may seem in some circles about as old-fashioned as Irish folklore yet both have combined to attain deep relevance on the contemporary awards show circuit, embodied most recently in the feature Wolfwalkers (an Apple Original Film), which has garnered Best Animated Feature Oscar, Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations, as well as 10 Annie Award nods, including for Best Animated Independent Feature.

Wolfwalkers also had a hand in history as it and Greyhound earned Apple its first Academy Award nominations (the live-action Greyhound scoring in the Best Sound category).

Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart directed Wolfwalkers, the third in an Irish folklore trilogy. The first two installments, The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, also earned director-producer Moore Best Animated Oscar nominations in 2010 and 2015, respectively. 

The resonance of detailed hand-drawn animation and Irish tales--from the Cartoon Saloon studio founded in Kilkenny, Ireland, by Moore, Nora Twomey and Paul Young--has yielded resounding commercial and critical success, the latter underscored by the three Best Animated Oscar nods over the past decade-plus. Plus there was a fourth Best Animated Feature Oscar nomination--outside the Irish folklore realm--in 2018 for the Cartoon Saloon-produced, Twomey-directed The Breadwinner. Cartoon Saloon’s filmography thus far consists of four features--each one earning an Oscar nod.

Wolfwalkers takes us to a time of superstition and magic when a young apprentice hunter, Robyn Goodfellowe, journeys to Ireland with her father to wipe out the last wolf pack. While exploring the forbidden lands outside the city walls, Robyn befriends a free-spirited girl, Mebh, a member of a mysterious tribe rumored to have the ability to transform into wolves by night. As they search for Mebh’s missing mother, Robyn uncovers a secret that draws her further into the enchanted world of the “Wolfwalkers” and risks turning into the very thing her father is tasked to destroy. 

Wolfwalkers is produced by Young, Twomey, Moore, and Stéphan Roelants. Production studios are Cartoon Saloon and Melusine Productions. GKIDS serves as the theatrical distribution partner in North America.

In a joint statement released shortly after they learned that Wolfwalkers earned an Oscar nomination, Moore and Stewart described the film as “a love letter to hand-drawn animation and its timeless potential, to nature and our shared biosphere and to our home here in Ireland--its history and culture, its folklore and its people.”

Wolfwalkers hit particularly close to home for Cartoon Saloon as the story itself is based in Kilkenny.

While releasing a film during a pandemic is far from ideal, Moore observed that Wolfwalkers has been able to find an audience with limited theatrical exposure being overcome in large part by the streaming dynamic via Apple TV+--as well as a concerted marketing campaign from Apple.

Wolfwalkers marks Stewart’s feature directorial debut though he is no stranger to the role as he’s helmed shorts. Stewart also has a track record of teaming with Moore, having served in such capacities as an art director and illustrated scenes director on The Secret of Kells and concept artist on Song of the Sea. Stewart found that as a director on Wolfwalkers, “the spirit of collaboration energized me, working with different people and departments.” While his first career Oscar nomination is gratifying, even more so, he said, are “the fond memories” Wolfwalkers brought him in terms of working with colleagues to tell the story.

Moore shared that “the stress wasn’t there as much” for him with Stewart as his co-director.  Conversely Stewart assessed that he found Moore’s guidance invaluable. Moore and Stewart also co-art directed Wolfwalkers with Maria Pareja.

Contributing to the film’s success was the meticulous honing of the story. Character arcs were continually worked on, said Stewart who noted that there were nine different drafts of the script with Will Collins penning the screenplay, Moore and Stewart credited with the story and Jericca Cleland serving as story and script consultant. A critical eye was kept on the story at all times as Moore and Stewart related that after the storyboarding had laid out the animation, they saw for the first time that the first act wasn’t working as planned. The entire first act was rewritten at that juncture, with loose ends getting tied up, ultimately translating into a better narrative and film.

Both Moore and Stewart described Wolfwalkers as a personal project which so many artists put their heart and soul into, building a belief in and connection with the story. That commitment and effort, they observed, played a key role in turning out a film that had a universality to it, appealing across generations from kids to adults, connecting with viewers from different walks of life and transcending geography.

This is the final installment of our 16-part The Road To Oscar series. The 93rd Oscars will be held on Sunday, April 25, 2021, with full coverage in SHOOT.

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