On October 30, 2015 the Romanian metal band Goodbye to Gravity played a show at Colectiv, one of the most popular nightclubs in Bucharest. In video footage from the night their singer, Andrei Galut, roars, “F*** all your wicked corruption,” over apocalyptic guitars. Suddenly they stop playing. “Something’s on fire there,” Galut says. Then, with panic in his voice: “That’s not part of the show.” The crowd erupts in screams.
The band’s pyrotechnics had ignited the flammable polyurethane foam that was used in the club for acoustic purposes. The resulting fire killed 64 people, including four of the five members of Goodbye to Gravity. Of those, 26 died in the club and 38 afterward in hospitals. Both of those death tolls were directly related to the “wicked corruption” that Galut was singing about, which is the subject of Collective, Alexander Nanau’s extraordinary new documentary.
A film about the Romanian health-care industry doesn’t sound like the sexiest sell, but Collective could be the timeliest and most explosive release of the year. The disaster provoked nationwide protests and on November 4, five days after the fire, the Romanian prime minister, Victor Ponta, and his government resigned. Nanau captured what followed, which was even bigger: a dogged newspaper investigation that drew on testimony from hospital whistleblowers and uncovered multimillion-euro corruption and negligence on an eye-watering scale. “We’re no longer human,” one doctor says in the film. “We only care about money.”
It’s bleak, powerful stuff. Collective, which is Romania’s entry in the best foreign film category at the Oscars next year, has been described by the Indiewire Web site as “one of the greatest movies about journalism ever made”. Jon Snow of Channel 4 News tweeted that it was “a brilliant new film about how hugely courageous journalism exposed a truth that changed the world”. It’s not hyperbole to mention Nanau and Catalin Tolontan, the editor in chief of the Sport Gazette newspaper, which led the investigation, in the same breath as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. How many newspaper editors have had their names chanted by a crowd, as Tolontan does in the film?
The stench of corruption was there from the start of the Colectiv disaster, says Nanau, speaking via Zoom alongside Tolontan. “Nobody realized that the club had no fire exits. If it had a proper authority to function it must mean that bribes were given to the fire department. People nationwide were calling each other to see if their friends were there. That’s why the reaction was so huge. For the first time since the revolution in 1989 we had this mass demonstration of a young generation urging the whole political class to stand down. The Romanian political class is highly corrupt and they [young people] said, ‘No, we need to stop this. It’s not just about the money that’s being stolen from us, it really kills us.’ ”
Collective, which is Romania’s entry in the best foreign film category at the Oscars next year, has been described by the Indiewire Web site as “one of the greatest movies about journalism ever made.”
Politicians, administrators and doctors, the film alleges, were lining their pockets with much-needed hospital money. One hospital manager was suspected of having stolen millions of euros. Meanwhile, the death rate in some intensive care units after the disaster was 90 percent. A man tells in the film of how a hospital in Austria agreed to take his son, but was blocked by the Romanian authorities. The boy died. Officials boasted throughout that survivors of the fire were receiving the same level of care they would get in Germany. In reality it was often medieval. Staff covered patients’ faces with sheets so they didn’t have to look at them. One burn victim is shown covered in writhing worms.
Many people were killed by bacterial infections that flourished partly because disinfectant had been diluted by unscrupulous suppliers to save money. It was meant to be 12 percent strength, but tests showed that it had been watered down to just over 1 percent. “This isn’t killing bacteria,” a doctor says in the film. “It’s killing people.” Proceedings took another dark turn when Dan Condrea, the boss of the company that supplied the disinfectant, died in a car accident. Tolontan and Nanau are sure it was suicide.
How did it feel to break such a big story? “It’s not a happy moment in any newsroom to have a big scoop because sometimes people go to jail,” says Tolontan, an understated man with no hint of self-aggrandizement. You can imagine him being played by Timothy Spall.
Nobody has gone to jail yet, Nanau says. “The judicial system is very slow and seems also to often be very partisan. Five years on, none of the officials and doctors that lied have been held accountable. The hospital managers who lied about doing surgery on patients in a burns unit that never opened have not been held accountable. The manager in the film: everyone around him was condemned, but he’s still free, working in hospitals.”
The “huge joy” of the story, Tolontan says, “is what we can do for the public. We give them the facts.”
That’s the nub of the matter, Nanau says. “People in power create a parallel reality for citizens that has nothing to do with their real intentions. We live in times where they do not even think about telling the truth. They seem to have this idea that there is their world and then there is us.”
Apart from Tolontan and the whistleblowing doctors, another hero of the film is Vlad Voiculescu, an economist who was appointed as interim minister of health to clean up the mess. Voiculescu’s courageous inquiries — many of them captured on camera — helped to reveal the full scale of wrongdoing. “He was appointed to absorb all the fury in society against the health-care system,” Nanau says. “I don’t think anybody thought he might become dangerous for the system itself. Because he was not a politician he didn’t owe anything to anybody. He told me, ‘One of our main goals is transparency.’ But he took a very big risk because he was working in a cave of corruption.”
“Maybe corruption is the brand of our nation,” Tolontan says sadly. “Although I don’t know if corruption or incompetence is the worst thing in Romania right now.”
Neither is an exclusively Romanian disease, of course. That, Nanau thinks, is why the film struck a chord with international viewers at the Venice and Sundance film festivals. “Everybody feels it. We are not connected to the power anymore,” he says. “Trump is the most extreme example, along with your lovely Boris Johnson.”
Even people in the most enlightened countries recognized what they saw. Tolontan talks about taking the film to a festival in Norway. “People came up to me and said, ‘Thank you for your hard work.’ They were feeling angry, not about the Romanian health system, but about theirs. We’re talking about Norway!”
So how are things now in Romania? “The health-care system is as bad as back then,” Nanau says. “The only thing that changed is that the salaries of doctors were raised a lot. They now earn the same as doctors in Germany or France. But they are still taking bribes. And in terms of the care for the patients, unfortunately there is no improvement. Even today during the pandemic they’re still lying, reporting that they have zero hospital infections. Zero!”
Outside the health-care world, however, “there’s a wind of change, for sure”, Nanau says. “Since Collective a lot of positive things have happened in Romania. Politicians and authorities did not learn anything, but what changed really dramatically is the civil society, which is now super-strong. It’s their donations that have built a new hospital in Bucharest.” Those, along with a donation of €250,000 from the American band Metallica. With a nod, perhaps, to their heavy metal brothers in Goodbye to Gravity.
Ed Potton is a film critic for The Times, and the host of The Times Film Show