On Oct. 30, 2015, a deadly fire at the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest, Romania, killed 27 people and injured as many as 180.
The tragedy made international news, especially when video of the incident began circulating. First, the lead singer of the metalcore band Goodbye to Gravity notices a fire after one of their pyrotechnic effects goes off and ignited some soundproofing foam on the ceiling. He tells fans that this isn’t part of the show, then, more urgently, pleads for someone to find a fire extinguisher.
Within seconds, the blaze intensifies, the band darts off stage and a panicked crowd of hundreds barrel toward the only working exit at the venue, a two-part door that was only half opened. People began climbing over each other in a rush to escape, causing a stampede. The video ends with the sounds of piercing screams as smoke gathers and the phone falls to the ground, presumably with its owner.
The unrecorded mayhem, according to reports and survivors’ accounts, included terrified concert-goers breaking down the other half of the door so more people could squeeze out. Others bashed through windows, while dozens and dozens were rendered practically immobile after their legs were injured while being trampled.
Nurses and doctors working at a nearby maternity hospital heard the screams once survivors were able to get to the street and rushed to help. Neighbors and taxi drivers drove the injured to hospitals, where people had to share beds due to the large number of victims. Three of the club’s shareholders were arrested for negligent homicide, negligent harm, and negligent destruction.
This is where most of the international coverage stopped.
What happened next involved unspeakable government corruption that resulted in the preventable deaths of 37 burn victims who had initially survived the blaze, triggered nationwide protests that led to the Prime Minister’s resignation, and an intrepid journalistic investigation that uncovered just how much blood a fraudulent and unethical administration seduced by corporate interests had on its hands.
It’s all chronicled in Alexander Nanau’s documentary Collective (Colectiv), which had its Sundance Film Festival premiere Friday night.
Guided by Cătălin Tolontan, a journalist for the Sports Gazette, of all publications, the film pursues the alerts of whistleblowers, the dogged efforts of a reforming young politician, and evidence that had been hiding in plain sight.
Collective exposes the ways in which the fire’s victims and the Romanian people were conned by the government into believing they were receiving proper, regulated healthcare only for patients to die in sometimes purposefully unsafe and inept conditions, as politicians, hospital managers, and medical supply executives lined their pockets.
It’s an angering, invigorating film. We watch Tolontan and his colleagues piece together a web of lies and revelations to create a full picture for the Romanian public of the ways in which their trust in the government and the healthcare system was abused.
The most apt comparison is Spotlight, which chronicled another bombshell whistleblowing investigative effort by journalists insisting on truth to power. That’s to say that the film, but perhaps more crucially the journalistic efforts by Tolontan and the Sports Gazette that it highlights, is an important reminder not to stop looking into the details and aftermath of horrific disasters once the news cycle has moved on. Wool can’t be pulled over still-scrutinizing eyes.
The reporting by Tolontan, an investigative and sports journalist, and his editors, Mirela Neag and Razvan Lutac, continued for months after the international interest in the Colectiv fire died down, as a groundswell of anger grew in Romania as survivors of the fire began dying in hospitals, often of infection.
Among their disturbing revelations was that, in spite of politically motivated assurances that the local hospitals were on par with the greatest in Europe, the reality was that the Romanian medical centers were not equipped to treat even one burn patient. Still, transfer requests to other hospitals were denied, as players in the corrupt health care system collected their money.
A lynchpin in the investigation was discovering the ineffectiveness of the disinfectant solution provided to hospitals under contracts with the company Hexi Pharma. Thanks to hospital workers who risked their jobs to speak out, the journalistic team learned that the disinfectant solutions were diluted up to 10 times. Bottle labels touted active ingredients in 20 percent concentration. Tested disinfectant only contained two percent concentration.
As one source said, “[The disinfectant] is not killing bacteria, it’s killing people.” Even tested scalpels used for surgeries contained multi-resistant bacteria. One gruesome video filmed by an anesthesiologist revealed that worms were growing in the wounds of burn victims after going days without being rinsed. People without life-threatening burns were dying from bacterial infections and negligent treatment.
Each new horrific detail is linked to corruption and the government. More than 100 briefings had been sent to the president, the prime minister, and the minister of health about the disinfectant and the hospital conditions prior to the Colectiv fire, meaning the government was knowledgeable about the situation but ignored it. Once Tolontan’s articles began publishing, test results were altered and lied about to exonerate the government. Paper trails involving tens of millions of euros of invoices revealed that Hexi Pharma executives and hospital managers were financially benefiting from the fraud.
The level of scandal and corruption escalates as the reporting gets deeper, with dismaying and suspicious acts hinting at even shadier malfeasance accompanying each twist.
More, as the documentary crew follows the new minister of health, patients’ rights activist and reformist Vlad Voiculescu, as he attempts to shatter the fortified political wall that enabled and benefited from the wrongdoing, he runs against spin and abuse of power and roadblocks of self-interest along the way. We learn of the hopelessness and anger surrounding such tragedies and the difficulty of actually doing anything to change the system and keep it from happening again.
Collective is a documentary about the power of information. But it’s also a cautionary tale of the inevitability of corruption and the disregard for human life when financial and political interests are involved. Is there power in the collective? Or are we the helpless, the victims doomed to repeat our greatest tragedies, over and over again?