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‘Collective’ digs through layers of tragedy in Romanian nightclub fire

UPDATED: Thu., Feb. 25, 2021

On the night of Oct. 30, 2015, a pyrotechnic display shot off during a band’s performance at a popular Romanian nightclub, Club Colectiv. The sparks started a fire that quickly spread through the club, which was housed in a former Bucharest shoe factory and had no fire exits. Cellphone video of the pyrotechnics starting a terrifying blaze is among some of the opening footage in the documentary, “Collective.” This tragedy, which took the lives of 27 people on site, was only the introduction to a much larger and more disturbing catastrophe.

Immediately after the fire, protests broke out placing most of the blame on government corruption for the death toll. Club Colectiv had been given an operating license without obtaining a permit from the fire department. On Nov. 4, Prime Minister Victor Ponta announced the government’s resignation, and a new government of technocrats was established for a one-year term until elections could be held.

“Collective” picks up the story about four months later, when an additional 37 victims had died in hospitals with seemingly manageable burn wounds. Director Alexander Nanau already had begun shooting the film when the real scandal unfolded.

The documentary opens on a news conference held by family members of victims as they reveal their loved ones had died in Bucharest hospitals from agonizing bacterial infection, and medical authorities had no legitimate excuse as to why the victims were not transferred abroad for proper treatment.

Present at the conference is journalist Cătălin Tolontan of the daily sports newspaper Gazeta Sporturilor. He reiterates authorities told the media and public the situation was being managed “impeccably,” and the hospitals had everything they needed to treat the victims as well as other countries in the European Union.

The documentary continues with an interview from a source familiar with internal hospital operations. The audio comes from within the room, but the footage is shot from outside, presumably from another nearby building. The source confirms the cause of death for victims who had initially survived the fire was bacterial infection, and no hospital in Bucharest is safe to treat burn patients. The documentary already begins to feel unreal in its ability to document these disturbing revelations, but this is only the beginning as astonishing events continue to unfold right in front of the lens.

Nanau, who also operated the camera in addition to directing, had such astounding access to not only interviews held by the investigating journalists, but also with meetings among staff of the new Minister of Health , that it would be easy to convince someone this was a narrative film shot in a documentary style. The cinematography is so precise and immersive and the discoveries are so riveting, the film almost feels staged, but it is in fact all true.

Tolontan’s team stake out a facility that produces disinfectants for 350 hospitals, with the camera in the backseat documenting them as they photograph jugs of disinfectant product being loaded into a car. Back in the newsroom, the team goes over documents that show the disinfectant has been diluted before being sold to the hospitals.

As the journalists of Gazeta Sporturilor dive into further investigations, the filmmakers tag along with the same momentum and determination. The documentary is incredibly captivating because it tells the story through the conversations and observations of those immersed in the scandal in real time rather than relying on talking head interviews after the fact. The audience feels their bewilderment because we are not watching them as they reflect on the events, but as they trudge through them carrying their genuine shock and anger in each moment.

The film asks profound questions without posing them directly. The audience watches as journalists dig out the truth in a fervor fueled by the victim’s grief and sustained by the unwillingness of bureaucracy to acknowledge its failings.

It reflects upon the citizen’s role in fighting against corruption and for a trustworthy government, as well as the role of those mired in bureaucracy who must risk their well-being and status in order to maintain public transparency and fight from within a corrupt system. In the film, people ask repeatedly, “What is the solution?”

What is so brilliant and effective about “Collective” is that it does not offer the audience any answers or solutions. It only serves to tell a story, a true and shocking story, allowing the audience to come to their own conclusions and experience their own visceral reactions. Nanau’s sensibility to pick up on the small mannerisms and interactions of those involved brings an essential human touch to an international political scandal and elevates this documentary as an emotional and cinematic experience.

“Collective” is available for streaming through Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, Google Play and FandangoNow and can be purchased in hard copy through Barnes & Noble, Amazon or any place where movies are sold.

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