Powerful and disturbing, Collective examines the impact of a fire that devastated Bucharest’s Colectiv nightclub in 2015. The horrific tragedy left 27 people dead and 180 injured and sparked massive nationwide protests. The unrest eventually forced Romania’s ruling Social Democratic party to resign.
In an attempt to calm the country's anger, a politically independent government of technocrats was appointed and given a one-year mandate, until the next general election. Alexander Nanau’s comprehensive and unflinching film documents the shocking revelations that were uncovered during that year.
As well as exploring the events in Romania, Collective is also a universal cautionary tale. Nanau explores the impact of loss, the human price of corruption, the importance of investigative journalism and the global threats facing democracy.
In the months following the Colectiv nightclub fire, more burn victims began to die in hospitals - many from wounds that were not considered to be life threatening. While authorities in Romania continued to insist that everything was under control, a small group of journalists began to suspect that something was very wrong indeed.
At a press conference held by grieving relatives, Nanau trains his camera on one reporter in particular - Catalin Tolontan. Working for Gazeta Sporturilor, Romania’s largest daily sports newspaper, Tolontan asks an unsettling question. After the fire, the media and public were told that the authorities were “managing the situation impeccably”, he says, “did they tell you the same thing?”
Heartbreakingly, the families confirm that, yes, this is what they were told. “The authorities lied to us,” states Laurentiu Istrate, whose 22 year-old son died in a Bucharest hospital 13 days after the fire. He believes that more people could have been saved if they had been transferred to another country. “Maybe not all of them would have lived, but surely we wouldn’t have had another 37 die.”
The situation, we discover, was far from impeccable. Collective follows Tolontan and his colleagues as they work tirelessly to confirm what they fear most. Following years of systematic fraud and corruption, Romania’s health care system is rotten to the core. The country’s hospitals are not safe.
With remarkable access, Collective puts us at the centre of Gazeta Sporturilor’s newsroom as the journalists uncover one revelation after another. “It was an organic decision to follow the very few that also doubted the official version of the events,” says Nanau. “The ones that were asking the unexpected, yet simple questions.”
While he has lived in Germany for most of his life, Nanau was born in Romania and was living in Bucharest at the time of the fire. “I experienced the full extent of the blow suffered by a democratic European society which could never have imagined that dozens of people could die when going out to a club,” he says. “The fire at Colectiv was a national trauma. It felt like everybody in the country was part of it. Like any single traumatized human, a traumatized society becomes easy to manipulate and to lie to.”
Once Tolontan and his colleagues understood the lies that were being told, they made a committment to bring the truth to light. The weight of this resposibility clearly takes a toll. However, there is no suggestion that they will end their investigation. How could they when faced with the resilience of the fire’s survivors and the strength of the victims’ families, some of whom share their stories in the documentary.
“I plunged into the big family of the Colectiv victims,” Nanau explains. “I stayed as close to them as I could, through their innermost grief and their struggle to understand why they had to lose their loved ones weeks after the fire if the medical treatment that they received was as good as the authorities claimed. The hardest challenge for me, as a father, was to witness the pain that parents went through after losing a child.”
The journalists were also emboldened by the bravery of their sources (one hospital whistle blower manages to record some absolutely horrific footage in a burns unit - images that will haunt me forever). Nanau never lets us forget the danger inherent in the act of speaking out.
Despite receiving threats, Tolontan remains undeterred - his dedication is inspiring. He believes that the media's silence after the fire allowed the authorities to get away with their lies. “We have blindly trusted the authorities - myself included as a journalist,” he says. “I’ve said this many times, when the press bows down to the authorities, the authorities will mistreat the citizens.”
As a result, at press conferences with health care officials, Tolontan holds Romania’s authorities to account. He refuses to back down and, amid our admiration, we begin to wonder (and, perhaps, fear) what the authorities might do in response to his investigation.
It is here, that Collective takes an incredibly impressive turn. Nanau invites us behind the scenes with Romania’s new health minister, Vlad Voiculescu. Voiculescu allows the director to capture his attempts at reform and the many obstacles that he faces.
“With the change of the Minister of Health, I took the chance to get my lens on the inner workings of the state government too,” Nanau explains. “I was lucky to be trusted by an open-minded new Minister who gave me unprecedented access to the system from within.
“I brought my camera into advisors’ meetings, during brainstorming sessions and coaching meetings before going out to the press. I could witness crisis management decisions and personal breakdowns. I filmed as a blunt truth came to light about the fragility of democracies and their state institutions without the constant scrutiny of the media and citizenry.”
It is both startling and refreshing to witness Voiculescu’s honest approach. In addition to being a rallying cry for press freedom, Collective makes a powerful case for political engagement and democracy. Voiculescu can only do so much in his short time in office, he needs the Romanian people to vote for lasting change.
“When I started working on this film in early 2016, I never imagined that the year would be a major turning point for democracy all around the world,” Nanau concludes. “I never suspected that, by the end of the production, most of what could be said about Romanian society would be equally relevant for older, more established democracies, be it the UK, the US, Italy, Brazil, Hungary, Poland, Turkey etc.
“There was a pattern of populists taking over, lying and attacking the free press, misusing state institutions in their own interest and perverting the very meaning of liberal values and social structures. 2016 tested democracies worldwide, but it also tested each and every one of us.”