The Collective Nightclub Fire Killed 27 People. How Government Fraud, Corruption, and Greed Killed 37 More.
The new documentary “Collective” reveals how the Romanian government conned its people, lined its pockets, ignored safety warnings, and led to dozens of preventable deaths.
When the lead singer of metalcore band Goodbye to Gravity screamed that this wasn’t part of the show, the chaos started.
On Oct. 30, 2015, a pyrotechnic effect set fire to soundproofing foam at the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest, Romania. Following the singer’s warning and a plea for someone to find a fire extinguisher, a stampede ensued.
A two-part door that was only half open was the only exit from the venue. As the blaze intensified and club-goers screamed in horror, some bashed open the other half of the door, others broke through windows, while too many were rendered immobile after being trampled in the rush to flee.
The deadly fire killed 27 people and injured at least 180, and three of the club’s shareholders were arrested for negligent homicide, negligent harm, and negligent destruction.
But after the embers stopped burning and the international attention moved on to the next tragedy, the horrors didn’t stop. As chronicled in the shocking new documentary Collective, unspeakable political corruption and government fraud led to the preventable deaths of 37 additional burn victims in the aftermath of the fires.
“It was a pretty emotional moment in Romania and it really triggered the whole country,” Collective director Alexander Nanau tells The Daily Beast over Zoom. The deaths of the initial survivors triggered nationwide protests that resulted in the resignation of the prime minister. A journalistic investigation, which the documentary follows, revealed the deadly extent of the corruption that was responsible for it all.
Romania’s official entry for the Foreign Language Film category at the Academy Awards, Collective is a Spotlight-esque chronicle of journalist Cătălin Tolontan and a small army of whistleblowers’ work to reveal the ways in which the victims and the Romanian people were conned by the people in power. They were led to believe 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.
Every day in the aftermath of the fire, government officials would deliver press conferences touting the country’s hospitals and healthcare capabilities, when the reality was that the hospitals were not even equipped to treat one burn victim. Still, transfers to other countries with proper burn units were repeatedly denied so that the hospitals could keep collecting money, as dozens of survivors died waiting.
Even when patients finally were flown out for proper treatment, Romanian officials continued to lie, erasing from the victims’ files that they were suffering from infections after being treated inadequately in the Romanian hospitals, confusing foreign doctors who were receiving patients on high-strength antibiotics for seemingly no reason. Some took the patients off the antibiotics, and some started to play with the dosages and mixes, confused by the altered files. In both cases, patients died.
“Patients would be flown out, and the Romanian authorities said, like, “OK, good. They won't die in our hospitals, they will die in their hospitals,’” Nanau says. “It was political fraud.”
Tolontan’s investigation discovered that the Romanian hospitals were also diluting disinfectant solutions up to 10 times, resulting in widespread bacteria, infections, and, in some cases, worms growing in victims’ wounds. The solution was provided under contracts with a pharma company that, along with hospital managers and government officials, knew about and financially benefited from the fraud.
As many as 13 of those deaths in the hospital are thought to have been from bacterial infections.
In the exclusive video clip above, families of the burn victims who survived the fire and died in the hospital because of this corruption gather together and painfully express their anger and frustration.
“It's about what these parents represented at the time,” Nanau says. “They were powerless citizens whose children were just killed by politicians and hospital managers that refused to transfer them.”
The scene represents the power of the moment in Romania at the time, of a people rising up against their government when news of the corruption started to leak out.
“There are people gathering who know that they were done wrong, but they can't put a finger on it,” he says. “They know what was done wrong, but they have no means to hold anyone responsible. It was important to show the position of a citizen if he is not backed up by press and if he's not backed up by a judicial system that holds people accountable.”
The film, which hits U.S. theaters and VOD on Nov. 20, is already available through HBO Europe, on which Nanau claims it became one of the most-watched offerings on the service in Romania. While Collective has been playing film festival circuits for over a year, its release now brings even more topicality to its warning siren about government corruption, healthcare, and the preventable loss of lives as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage the globe.
As a testament to its impact, Nanua also says that journalists he’s talked to have told him that since the film has become available to watch in Romania, the number of whistleblowers sending them tips or coming forward about corruption during the pandemic has increased roughly 10 times.