5 years after Romania’s nightclub fire, a documentary investigates the dangers of corruption

 5 years after Romania’s nightclub fire, a documentary investigates the dangers of corruption

The film astounds through its great access to a journalistic team and a new health minister as they discover the lethal wrongdoings of an entire system.

11 March 2020
Images: Stills from Collective

On 30 October 2015, 27 people were killed during a fire at the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest. A further 37 died in the weeks that followed; another 180 people were injured.

The event made apparent that the country’s wide scale corruption was not an abstract issue, but a danger to public health and human life. The nightclub had no fire exits, but inspectors had been paid to turn a blind eye.

The government later reassured an increasingly angry public that hospitals were able to contain the crisis. But a few weeks later, investigative journalist Catalin Tolontan and his team at Gazeta Sporturilor discovered that the deaths following the fire had been caused by the mass use of ineffective disinfectant that had been diluted with water. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets, marking a new beginning for a more issue-driven civil society. The government resigned and was replaced by technocrats.

Film director Alexander Nanau, winner of an Emmy Award for his film The World According to Ion B., became interested in making an observational documentary on the scandal, exploring the “mechanisms of communication between society and the state”. “We were interested in the lies and manipulations that resulted in so many people’s deaths,” Nanau told The Calvert Journal. His work resulted in Collective, a film that is being premiered in the UK on 12 March at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. It will later be released UK-wide, as well as in Canada, Germany, New Zealand and other countries later this year.

“But you can’t describe a society through pity only.”

Nanau asked Tolontan if he could film him carrying out his investigative work, which moved from exposing the government’s lies on hospitals’ ability to cope with higher numbers of patients in intensive care, through to discovering the offshore company that bribed medical workers and hospital managers to buy their diluted sanitiser. At first, the journalist refused, but later gave in with the hope of ensnaring young people who shun newspapers into investigative work.

The other subject Nanau filmed was the then new minister of health, Vlad Voiculescu, who vowed transparency would be guiding his one-year mandate.

The result is an incredibly tense 100-minute film in which both Tolontan and Voiculescu, working from different positions, investigate the ills of the Romanian health system, imbued with corruption and poor management.

Journalists Catalin Tolontan and Mirela Neag discuss their findings.

Despite Nanau’s restrained and sensitive portrayal of the victims and their families, the film is emotional from the start, with the parents of young people who died in the fire, speaking about their loss at a meeting with government officials. In an interlude in the middle of the documentary, one young woman who lost her hands and has visible burn marks is silently filmed as she poses naked and without the wig she now wears, in a photoshoot. At the end of the film, Nanau returns to the parents of one young man: a shot of the father’s tearful eyes as he drives to the cemetery on Christmas Day can be seen through the rear mirror from the back of the car. “Telling the victims’ dramatic stories can be a trap because in that case, the film will mainly inspire pity. But you can’t describe a society through pity only,” Nanau says.

The father of a young man who died in the fire driving from his son's grave.
Health Minister Vlad Voiculescu in a meeting where he and his team untangle the corruption schemes in the health system.

Indeed, beyond these three heartbreaking scenes, the film feels very cerebral. The value of the documentary lies above all in the great access it gets to its subjects. We see the inner workings of a tireless journalistic newsroom, as well as the well-meaning if politically inexperienced ministerial team, almost as if both had forgotten the camera. Nanau prides himself on his capacity to build a trusting relationship with his subjects. “I like to film the moments when things happen,” he says. For this reason, the documentary focuses solely on following the subjects through their day jobs rather than on, say, interviews.

Collective screened across Romania in February, ahead of the five-year anniversary of the tragedy. Most of its audience was very young. “Many of them said, ‘I now want to get involved. It is clear to me now that [the socio-political situation in Romania] depends on what we do,’” Nanau recalls. “This was what we hoped to achieve.”

Collective will be showing at Human Rights Watch Film Festival on 12 March, and will be released across the UK on 5 June.

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