BUCHAREST, Romania — On Oct. 30, 2015, a fire ripped through a nightclub in the Romanian capital, Bucharest, leaving 64 people dead. Almost six years later, a documentary about the fire and its tragic aftermath has been nominated for two Oscars.
It would be the first Oscar win for the Eastern European country, but the film’s success is bittersweet for many Romanians, given its painful subject matter — particularly since many believe not enough has changed since 2015.
“Collective,” which has been nominated for best documentary feature and best foreign film, follows a group of investigative journalists from a sports newspaper as they uncover painful truths about the Romanian health care system.
“The situation was so appalling that basically it should have been a big scandal in the whole of Europe,” said Alexander Nanau, the film’s director.
Events on the night of the fire and its immediate aftermath ricocheted across Romania, toppling the government at the time — led by the Social Democratic Party — and mobilizing civil society into large-scale protests.
In the years since, however, there have been further political scandals, and few health care overhauls. The coronavirus pandemic has also put huge new demands on the struggling Romanian health care system. Two fires in Covid-19 wards in the last six months have left at least 20 people dead.
Many Romanians wonder how much has really changed since “Collective.”
While tragic, the nightclub fire is just the film’s starting point. The blaze claimed 27 lives in its immediate aftermath, but 64 people would ultimately die, many victims of a health care system awash with corruption and willing to hide painful truth from the victims and their families.
Standing outside one of Bucharest’s main hospitals, Nanau recalled: “It was basically in front of this hospital where the minister of health always stood flanked by doctors saying ‘We can treat the burn victims at the highest standards.’”
However, as the journalists found out, the burn unit was not even operational at the time, Nanau said. “It’s incredible that they have the guts to lie to all these people that their kids are being given surgery in the most modern burn unit when in fact this was closed.”
The journalists also discovered that the disinfectant used in hospitals across the country was being watered down, to the extent that it was largely ineffectual, probably resulting in many more deaths. The owner of the company involved drove his car into a tree after the truth was brought to light, killing himself.
The documentary shows in real time the reaction of the journalists after a whistle-blower sends them footage from a hospital of maggots crawling in the wound of a burn victim.
The film has been compared to both “Spotlight” and “All the President’s Men,” and in a review for The New York Times late last year, Manohla Dargis described “Collective” as a “staggering documentary” that offered “no moment when you can take an easy breath, assured that the terrible things you’ve been watching onscreen are finally over.”
For people in Romania, however, much of what is shown onscreen is painfully familiar.
Catalin Tolontan, then the editor in chief of the daily newspaper Gazeta Sporturilor, is one of the main protagonists of “Collective.” Before the documentary, “We used to receive 10 or 15 messages per day from the public, with scoops or information,” he said in an interview. “After the movie we received 70 to 80 a day.”
Tedy Ursuleanu, who suffered severe burns across her head and body, and had her fingers amputated as a result of the fire, is one of the strongest characters in the film.
In an interview, she said that it was not a hard decision to let the filmmakers follow her, but that seeing the film was a painful experience. “When I saw some of the scenes, the impact was as if I lived those moments again,” Ursuleanu said. “I started to cry. I needed to go outside to compose myself.”
Ursuleanu said she believed that not enough progress had been made in the years since the documentary was filmed. “Changes have taken place, but they are few compared to the needs we have here,” she said. “Sadly, tragedies like this could easily happen again, because even now measures are not respected.”
Partway through the documentary, “Collective” introduces a young, reform-minded health minister, Vlad Voiculescu, who is brought in as part of a short-lived technocrat government.
Voiculescu and his team face strong resistance as they try to bring greater transparency to the health care system, while having to accept that the system was culpable in many deaths.
In a recent interview, Voiculescu, who was reappointed as health minister late last year, said that what frustrated him most was that on his return he found an institution that was “even more collapsed than before.” Now, Voiculescu is more focused on dealing with the coronavirus than overhauling the Romanian health care system.
“Collective,” which appeared on streaming platforms late last year, has resonated strongly with audiences around the world, especially at a time when the pandemic has made health care a central issue globally.
Nanau, a Romanian director who spent much of his life in Germany before moving back to his home country in 2015, has a track record of producing powerful documentaries. His previous film, “Toto and His Sisters,” followed the lives of three teenagers left to fend largely for themselves in one of the poorest areas of Bucharest, after their mother was sent to prison on drug charges.
But with “Collective,” he seems to have found a subject that hit at a perfect moment.
The film’s impact has also been felt outside Romania. Earlier this year in Mongolia, when a woman with Covid-19 was transferred from the hospital in freezing temperatures just days after giving birth, journalists began asking tough questions of the government, apparently encouraging one another on Facebook by referencing “Collective,” which a local television station had shown days earlier. Protests followed, and the government ultimately resigned.
“If you are a journalist in a small country and saw ‘Spotlight,’ you could say, ‘Well, this is the U.S., they have a lot of resources, they have a strong democracy, they have a bond between the public and government,’” Tolontan, the newspaper editor, said. “But if you are in Mongolia or the Czech Republic, Indonesia, and you saw this movie, you think ‘They’re like us.’”
Andrei Gorzo, a Romanian film critic, said that it was harder for Romanian viewers to see “Collective” as a morally clear-cut tale of a few good people fighting to change the rotten system.
Instead, he said, it captures a specific moment in Romania, when urban, middle-class voters believed in a new breed of politician, young and unsullied, who could clean up Romanian politics. “It is impossible for me to watch the film without acknowledging that a lot of that romanticism has turned sour since then,” he said.
Others are more optimistic.
“The generation that will change things here is not the generation that is 35-plus,” Nanau said. “It’s the younger generation, and these are the people that write to us, that we have met in the cinemas.”
Tolontan said he saw “Collective” as “a point of no return” for Romanian society.
Whether the film wins at the Oscars ceremony next month, many Romanians still hope that the film’s biggest impact will be at home, and that they can leave its content in the past.