On Oct. 30, 2015, a fire broke out during a heavy metal concert in the Bucharest nightclub, Colectiv. Twenty-seven concertgoers died that night; another 180 were injured. In the following four months, another 37 died while still in state hospitals.
The cause of the fire: stage pyrotechnics gone awry. The band playing that night, Goodbye to Gravity, had just finished performing the song, “The Day We Die,” when frontman Andrei Galut looked above and saw that some sparks had caught fire in the rafters. Within seconds the fire spread throughout the room. Goodbye to Gravity high-tailed it out of there, as did the patrons, but Colectiv was not well equipped with fire exits, and many were trampled, burned, and killed.
The outcry was instantaneous, and the Social Democratic Party of Romania appointed a special task force to investigate the incident. But Bucharest’s daily sports paper, the Sports Gazette, was already on it, and what they found in the state hospitals was far worse than the shoddy construction of Colectiv.
Down the rabbit hole they go, with filmmaker Alexander Nanau in tow. His documentary, Collective, explores a nest of corruption, graft, and greed so deep, the bottom is never found. The access granted to Nanau is stunning: First, the footage of the fire inside Colectiv—captured on cell phones—then the reporting of Catalin Tolontan and his team at the Sports Gazette. Finally, with Vlad Voiculescu, the newly appointed health minister tasked with cleaning up (i.e., covering-up) the Colectiv fire and the discoveries made by Tolontan’s team.
But Voiculescu has no interest in covering-up for those in control. Unfortunately for Voiculescu, that doesn’t amount to a hill of beans when everyone is on the take.
Whistle-blowers come forward, discoveries pile up, players talk “off the record,” and Nanau’s camera captures it all. At times Collective plays like a ’70s paranoia conspiracy; other times, it’s worse. But lest those harmed during the fire are forgotten—you could almost make the argument that the fire is the least of Collective’s concerns—Nanau returns to one victim in particular: Tedy Ursuleanu, a 29-year-old architect who suffered severe burns and had her fingers amputated. In one scene, she models for a photographer trying to capture the damage sustained artfully. In another, she learns how to use a new mechanical hand. In one of the movie’s most moving scenes, she speaks with Voiculescu as he walks a fine line between what he is allowed to say and what he wants to say. Ursuleanu nods along, intuiting the unspoken admissions.
It’s tough stuff, but it’s also immensely engrossing. Where Collective begins is nowhere close to where it ends. And just because the movie ends doesn’t mean the problems do.
Directed by Alexander Nanau
Written by Alexander Nanau, Antoaneta Opris
Produced by Hanka Kastelicová, Bernard Michaux, Alexander Nanau
Starring: Razvan Lutac, Mirela Neag, Catalin Tolontan, Tedy Ursuleanu, Vlad Voiculescu
Magnolia Pictures, Not rated, Running time 109 minutes, Currently available at CU-Boulder’s International Film Series’ virtual theater.