‘I’m Not a Hero’: Meet the Crusading Journalist at the Heart of Oscar-Nominated Documentary ‘Collective’

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Catalin Tolontan wasn’t ready for his close-up.

The Romanian sports journalist whose investigative work provides the spine of the Oscar-nominated documentary “Collective,” initially turned down director Alexander Nanau’s offer to capture him at work as he sought to expose widespread fraud and corruption. The story he was chasing, one that involved a staggering level of bureaucratic ineptitude and institutional greed, was simply too hot to risk compromising his sources.

“I had a lot of reservations,” Tolontan told Variety during a recent Zoom interview from his native Bucharest. “We have to protect the whistleblowers first of all. And also you are thinking that this is going to be like a Hollywood movie with cameras and lights and a hundred people walking around our news room.”

But Nanau promised to stay out of the reporters’ way and also allowed them to screen the final cut before it debuted to ensure that no sources’ personal information or names were exposed. He did most of the shooting himself, which allowed him to be a fly-on-the-wall as the Gazette, Tolontan’s paper, published one blockbuster story after another. Although the Gazette is best known for its soccer coverage, the paper became one of the leading sources of news on the aftermath of a catastrophic 2015 fire at a club called Colectiv, which killed 27 people and injured an additional 180. Nearly 40 more people died from their burns because Romania’s hospitals were so poorly maintained, relying on diluted disinfectants that allowed patients to develop fatal bacterial infections. As “Collective” documents, Tolontan and his team conducted their own tests and found a paper trail that proved medical supplier, Hexi Pharma, had falsified records and watered down disinfectants, a story that had profound political ramifications in Romania.

“For me ‘Collective’ is not about the health system and it’s not about corruption,” says Tolontan. “It’s about democracy. Journalists and citizens have to be involved, and only then will the government have progress.”

Perhaps the most stunning thing is that this huge national story wasn’t broken by a crack political reporter, but by one of the country’s leading sports journalists. Imagine, if you would, sports columnist Skip Bayless posting exclusives on the Trump-Ukraine scandal in addition to offering commentary on ESPN. But the lines seem blurrier in Romania, where Tolontan has written deeply reported pieces on figures such as Gică Popescu, captain of the country’s national football team, as well as Monica Iacob Ridzi, the minister of youth and sports. These stories exposed corruption scandals that ultimately resulted in jail time.

“I’ve been conducting investigations for 25 years on sports figures and footballers and politicians,” says Tolontan. “We are unbiased and balanced in our coverage. Year after year, we do this work and we gain our readers trust, because they see that we get results.”

The final film serves as a testament of sorts to shoe-leather reporting, an ode to the Fourth Estate on par with “All the President’s Men” or “Spotlight.” When “Collective” premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, Tolontan was heartened when one audience member came up to him and promised to remove his ad blocker from his computer.

“He understood that the media needs advertising to get resources for this kind of investigation to take place,” says Tolontan.

And even though he may have taken on powerful forces while breaking the Colectiv story, Tolontan shrugs off any suggestion that he’s a hero.

“Our profession is risky, but it’s risky to be a taxi driver in New York City,” he says. “I’m not a hero. The real heroes are the whistleblowers, the doctors and the victims and their families.”

“Collective,” released by Magnolia Pictures and Participant, has scored rave reviews and is nominated for both best documentary and best foreign film at this month’s Academy Awards. Tolontan hopes to attend the ceremony in person, but he’s unsure if COVID restrictions will prevent him from making the trip to Los Angeles. If he does walk the red carpet, he may find himself face-to-face with Aaron Sorkin, who is nominated for writing “The Trial of the Chicago 7” and happens to be the creator of Tolontan’s favorite show.

“I love ‘The West Wing,'” says Tolontan. “To be on the same page — and it’s a long page, of course — of nominations with Aaron Sorkin is unbelievable. It feels like a dream.”