Burnt to the core: A paean to investigative journalism

SCARRED for life: Tedy Ursuleanu was one of the lucky ones who survived the fire in Bucharest nightclub Colectiv. Photograph courtesy

Sometimes it takes a relatively small conflagration to set the whole world on fire and let it burn to the ground. Alexander Nanau’s brilliant documentary Collective tells a story that will trigger your sense of urgency as it will trouble your gut. It features on this year’s Encounters International South African Documentary Film Festival, which runs until 20 June 2021.

On 30 October 2015, acoustic foam caught alight in a Bucharest night club called Colectiv. In the absence of proper fire escapes, 64 people died and 146 were seriously wounded. And this is just where it all begun. Two weeks after the fire, 32 of those victims died in Bucharest hospitals, not from their injuries, but from infection.

A small daily sports publication, Gazeta Sporturilor took on the monster of this situation with unstoppable journalistic pushing and prodding at a scenario which smacked too obviously of government lies, and it’s a tale that is completely riveting. It’s like an unfolding horror story where the victims are innocent and the perpetrators rotten to the core, only it’s scarier, because it’s real. It’s about the dilution of sterilising chemicals, a crooked businessman doctor (or a couple of them) and grubby ministerial doublespeak that pointed all the way to government.

But it is also about the inner workings of a small publication boxing way above its weight and the intimate decision makings in ministerial offices. With footage that you cannot actually get your head around, it is so intrusive, spot-on and clear that it feels curated rather than actual, the story unfolds with the same kind of terrifying rapidity as that in Richard Poplak and Diana Neillie’s film Influence, Alex Gibney’s Totally Under Control and Anton Harber’s extraordinarily fine publication So, for the record. It fits into the upper bracket of doccies that doff a cap to centuries of fictional stories in film and takes the challenge one level higher.

The filmmakers go boldly into spaces of government and the press, but they also don’t shy from the shocking realities of burn victims neglected. As the maw of this story opens up, you see real footage of worm-infested dying patients, of ill-equipped burn units that force two patients into a bed at the same time, of the way in which the human body seems to melt in the face of severe burns. But you cannot look away. The anger and drama of the story is encapsulated with wisdom and a deep understanding of journalism.

And while on paper, the social democrats win the election, they don’t really win the day. Or, rather in the framework of this film, they don’t. Collective is an extraordinary work premised on an understanding of courage and honesty. It’s about the Gordian knot of politics, victims, medical protocol and populism being taken head on by a young leader. The then newly appointed Minister of Health, Vlad Voiculescu was just in his early 30s when he took up the reins of a corrupt ministry torn by greed and mobsterism.  

There is a moment in the HBO series Oz, from the late 1990s, where a game of checkers turns violent and the whole world is cast from this ostensibly benign moment into bloodthirsty riot. It’s a beautiful understanding of a tipping point in a tale. This is what Colectiv’s fire provoked in Romania.

If you are not part of the Romanian inner circle of politics and inefficiency, that doesn’t affect the potency of this piece, however. Nanau paints an important picture of how the personal, political, greed and life concatenate anywhere where values are allowed to go awry. Stripped of the controversy of diluted chemicals or the availability of lung transplant, it’s the story of this country as much as it is of Romania. A tragic fable for our times.

Collective (Colectiv) is directed by Alexander Nanau and is written by Alexander Nanau and Antoaneta Opris. In Romanian with English subtitles, it is produced by Alina David, Hanka Kastelicová, Bernard Michaux, Alexander Nanau and Bianca Oana, it features creative input by Kyan Bayani (music), Alexander Nanau (cinematography) and Dana Bunescu, George Cragg and Alexander Nanau (editing), and is accessible on the Encounters International South African Documentary Film Festival which runs until 20 June 2021, online.

2 replies »

  1. Thank you, an incredible review of a film I am almost too scared to watch. All too familiar tropes.

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