Brooke Gladstone: Over the long dark, lonely months of quarantine, many of us dreamed about the things we missed from pre-pandemic life and fantasized about when we'd be able to do them again, like seeing loved ones who lived far away or eating in a crowded restaurant or dancing the night away in a sweaty room full of strangers. Nightclubs around the world have started reopening this summer. The idea of a nightclub, a place dedicated to uninhibited bacchanalian fun becoming a place of death and destruction is horrifying, but that's exactly what happened to Collective in 2015.
Collective is the name of a Bucharest nightclub that went up in flames on October 30 of that year. 27 people died more or less immediately, another 180 injured. Then in the weeks to come, 37 more perished in unsanitary hospitals not from their burns, but from infection. When it became clear the government was lying, public rage was so intense, the government was forced to step down, replaced by short-term technocrats who would serve for a year before the next election.
The story of the fire at Collective and the ensuing government scandal was captured by a Romanian documentary, also called Collective. It was nominated for two Oscars this year for Best International feature film and Best Documentary Feature. The film begins with grief and ends with it. It's not grim, it's gripping because the investigative reporters shadowed in the film, peel away the layers of government corruption like the proverbial onion until the great moral vacuum at its heart is exposed. Who does that peeling? The Bucharest-based Sports Gazette, ultimately, the nation's most trustworthy news source.
The film has much to tell about the struggle for justice and the courage and patience it requires. Alexander Nanau is the director of the film Collective. When we spoke back in March, he told me about the national tragedy that serves as the starting point for the film.
Alexander Nanau: The fire that erupted in the Collective was a national tragedy. It was a popular club. It was a certain generation that went to the club, students, but also older people, people that have also their own bands. Everybody seemed to know somebody that was there that night. Demonstrations erupted all around the country in many cities. The demonstrations were the biggest ones since the revolution. It was a very young generation that organized in social media within one day to take the streets.
It seemed like a turning point. Having lived for a long time in Germany and having worked with so many different ethnicities and people that lived through German history, I expected it to be some kind of '68 in Eastern Europe, because even Germany in '68, its institutions were still full of Nazis or former Nazis, and even the German Chancellor was a former high ranking Nazi. I felt, "Oh, this is the moment where a young generation is pushing out the world their parents build, the world where they tolerated populism, corruption, and incompetence."
Brooke: You felt a resonance from earlier moments and you thought this might be a turning point in Romania?
Alexander: Exactly, yes. That led me to the need to understand power because it was clear that we were in the middle of a conflict of generations. I thought, "I have to understand how power really functions and how power really works, how it manipulates people."
Brooke: Early in the film, you show the fire from inside the Collective. It's terrifying. You have this band, Goodbye to Gravity performing. The songs raged against corruption, the lyric to one of them went,t"The day we give in is the day we die." The song ends, the crowd and the band loathes. Then the band says, "Wait, the fire isn't part of the act," and you see it spark and then you see it flame and people start running.
Alexander: Basically, the company that was hired to install these fireworks for the concert used fireworks for outside not inside. The foam used in the club was not fireproof. The biggest problem basically was that this club had only one exit and no fire exits. It was the same door people came in to. That was basically also what enraged the whole country because this club should not have functioned. The fire department had authorized it and the mayor had authorized it. Everybody could imagine that there will most probably bribes that made this possible.
Brooke: The very first scene is with the family and the friends of the people who died expressing the agony of their loss.
Speaker: [Romania language]
Brooke: It's universal. What you're doing there is setting the stakes, right?
Alexander: Setting the stakes and also it's their story. I think the documentary has this privilege to be close to the people and understand that sometimes the stories that we see as breaking news or club cohort fire in Bucharest, over 180 people are injured. Here, it is important to understand that these people share a common problem, that their kids, they should not have died by their burn injuries, died in hospitals in Romania, weeks after the fire and nobody gives them answers.
Brooke: You're there when an editor or reporter from the Sports Gazette asks some questions. How did the Sports Gazette come to be the principal driver of this expose? On the front page, it's normally about soccer teams.
Alexander: Right, but it also has an investigative section, Cătălin Tolontan, and Mirela Neag.
Brooke: They're the investigative team, but what kind of investigations were they accustomed to doing?
Alexander: Since over 20 years, basically, they investigated abuses that happened in the sports world. They started investigating politicians when politicians started to get involved with sports and understand that there's also a good place to steal public funds. In the last years, the investigations took down two sports ministers and a lot of the big soccer bosses had to go to jail after the revelations that Cătălin and Mirela had done in those Sports Gazette. Basically, after the fire, almost all of the press failed. They only propagated what the authorities were saying.
The whistleblowers went to the Sports Gazette to blow the whistle, they trusted them more to be non-partisan and to really go after the system than other outlets. That's how they ended up in the middle of this national tragedy to use their skills and investigate the healthcare system. In such a young democracy, where the institutions are not yet really always functional and very dependent on who is in power. Because the people they investigated also went to jail, I think that gave their readership a lot of trust in them.
Brooke: About you and your access, you got film from inside the club. You were there when Tolontan first raises questions. You're there in the office of the Gazette when they're discussing revelations when they're actually learning things. You can't have been living in the office. When did you come into it?
Alexander: Pretty soon in the beginning. I got aware of their presence because of other things they unveiled in the healthcare system after the fire. We had our own development team of the film, which was made out of journalists also and we investigated ourselves. Then the head of the team, who's also the co-author, Antoaneta, said, "I think that to make really observational film about what's going on, the point of view of investigative journalists would be just perfect and Tolontan would be just perfect, but too bad he will never allow it bacause he was known for being very rigid.
I said, "Okay, let's try it. Just give me his phone number. I will see." We met them and they refused. I told Tolontan, "Listen," they knew for sure my work. I said, "If you really onto something, if anything comes up and you make up your mind, please give me a call." That happened then suddenly. He called me and said, "We are on to something. We can't tell you what it is. We don't know if it will pay off or if we are on the wrong track, but let's try."
I thought, at that point, that they really trusted us because they saw how we were working with our own development team, we had sources. After we launched the film in Venice, he explained that they gave it another thought because they thought, if somebody is able to do a good film, he is going to make a film that shows the work of the press, that maybe the young generation that turned away from press and gets their information only from social media and does not really understand anymore why you need press, maybe it would be just a good way of reconnecting with some people.
Brooke: As you mentioned, the first outrage was the lack of fire exits. 27 people died instantly. You mentioned 180 were injured and 37 more died weeks later in the hospital. That sparked the second outrage and also Tolontan's first discovery that the disinfectants being used in hundreds of hospitals across the country are coming from a company called Hexi Pharma, which was diluting their products, sometimes to a 10th of their recommended strength.
Tolantan's team learned about that, tested the products themselves, released their results. The Minister of Health at that point says, "Okay, we'll investigate how clean the hospitals are," and entirely disputes the results that the Gazette got from an independent lab. It's clear, at that point, that there's something rotten going on.
Alexander: As you said, the beginning of all was the fact that the authorities lied and said that the burn patients died because of their burn injuries. Then a courageous woman, a doctor, came forward blew the whistle at the Sports Gazette, and revealed to the journalists that her patients did not die of the burn injuries, but they died of hospital infections. Romania has some of the most lethal hospital infections in the whole of Europe. That was something that the authorities were trying to hide, and somebody else came forward and said, "If you want to know why there are so many infections in Romanian hospitals, contact me." That was somebody from inside the Hexi Pharma company.
Brooke: Inside the Hexi Pharma company?
Brooke: After the government investigation, a new health minister comes in. He seems sincere, earnest, a good guy.
Alexander: An outsider, not from inside the system, that was very important.
Brooke: He was a Romanian who lived in Vienna. How did you wind up in his office during his discussions with his staff and the higher-ups?
Alexander: Basically, when the health minister had tried to cover Hexi Pharma and lie that all is good and everybody's safe, when this minister came down because of the investigations, we heard rumors that this outsider is interviewed for the job, a patients activist that was working in a bank in Vienna, but knew enough about healthcare because he was a patients activist. That led me to my first thought of making the film. I want to make a film about power and understand power. I thought, "Maybe that's my chance and maybe an outsider would understand the importance of transparency and really trust me to shadow his work in his short term."
His term was for over six or seven months until elections. I was lucky because I met a young guy of 33 years, with a very young team of professionals around him. They said to me that transparency is their number one issue, and they want to give transparency back to the people. Health care is a basic right which is even written in our constitution. Because of this basic right, people have all of the right to know what decisions are taken inside the Ministry of Health and upon which criteria. We agreed that I will film and that he will never tell me to stop the camera.
He said, "You just have to be aware that everybody will hate us. We are in the cave of corruption. This will not be easy, but let's give it a try." I think that we have this film also because of the courage of so many people; of the whistleblowers that even let me film them while they were blowing the whistle to journalists, which is not very common. Of the journalists that did not give up even if the whole state tried to dismiss their investigation. This young minister had the courage to let me film. The victims and the parents of [unintelligible 00:14:58] that boy in the story that's really had the courage to let us be at their side in their most private moments.
Brooke: The woman who went before the cameras with her hands burned off and her skin wrinkled with burn scars, a beautiful woman, but utterly transformed.
Alexander: Yes, she calls herself Tedy. She, for me, was an enigma because what she did goes against, let's say, our instinct of revenge. She survived, many of her friends didn't. She was aware that society, most of all the power, wants to hide what they've done. She uses her body and herself, and she exposes herself in this big exhibition that you see in the film. She says, "My only way from here is to get up and walk on because I know who I am. Even if I may look different now, I won't let these people poison my life or change my life by just looking for revenge all the time." She's really an example of resilience and not only of survival, but also of evolution basically. That is really a lesson for me.
Tedy: [Romanian language]
Brooke: You were talking about the courage of a lot of the people in your film. There's one character, a bad guy, the head of Hexi Pharma, who clearly would have the names of a lot of corrupted officials he bribed in his pocket. He is said by the authorities to have killed himself in a car crash. A lot of people including his ex-wife are skeptical because he could have turned and gotten a lighter sentence and put some heavyweight politicos away. Did you ever worry yourself about the safety of documenting this kind of corruption when, clearly there was demonstrable risk?
Alexander: We knew that we were surveyed, for example. I knew that my phone was tapped. I only saw it as a way of collecting information because we were every day next to this investigative journalist. What we did as a production for sure is that every day, we would secure the footage, hide it in different places, and then also fly it out of the country because we didn't want the production to be harmed. As things were happening fast, we had to be in many places not to miss parts of the story. We had multiple characters to film. I don't think that we had time to think about safety. It was all as tense as you see it in the final film.
Brooke: A great deal happens in the film. It's compulsively watchable. The film ends with election results. We learned throughout the film it isn't just people at Hexi Pharma, the new young health minister, Vlad Voiculescu says if the social democrats come in again, then nothing can change. The system, he said, was rotten from top to bottom. Give me the sequel. With the re-election of the Social Democrats, Vlad experiences a great defeat. It left the viewer feeling that even the best journalism might not make a difference.
Alexander: Not in that short time, what you see in the film, the time is too short to change a society and the power of populists and their mediatic and financial power. We have our own Fox News, you see it in the film. It is strong enough to make people that feel marginalized by side or by the elites to believe them. That said, in the long run, people started to understand and started to vote differently. For example, we had last year in 2020 elections, and this new reformed parties where Vlad Voiculescu also became a member have won enough votes so that for now they are part of a coalition government. Which means they have several ministries. One of them is the Ministry of Health, which is since last Christmas, led by Vlad Voiculescu.
Brooke: He's back.
Alexander: He's back and still has to fight the system because he's basically starting from scratch to change everything and to try to let managers appoint by merits and not by political parties, and also tries to invest in the safety of people in hospitals.
Brooke: Do you believe that this did start with the fire and the investigation of it and what it exposed about the rot deep within the system?
Alexander: Oh, yes, that is no doubt. This is the turning point in the Romanian society and it is always mentioned as a landmark for, let's say, a will to change.
Brooke: What was the hardest thing for you in creating this film?
Alexander: Having to what you can only barely do to understand the emotions of parents whose kids were killed by people that tricked them and lied to them that they will rescue them when they actually knew they will kill them.
Brooke: One parent says that he was waiting for the go-ahead for putting his son in a Viennese hospital for better treatment and they just said the paperwork got lost.
Alexander: Yes, they already organized for him to be accepted at the Viennese hospital. They just had to sign off that their son can be transferred. They just didn't want to do it. No, they didn't want to do it. They didn't want to admit that they're not capable of treating these people.
Brooke: There's a moment when one of the whistleblowers is asked, "Why would they do this? Why would they do this?" She says, "They stopped being human."
Alexander: She says, "We stopped being human," we doctors. Yes, because the healthcare system in Romania, at least also coming out of a communist system, is a system where bribes were always accepted from the medicine school on which is appointing where people will work after the medicine school and which hospitals. Bribes are the main reason for making a career. Most of them and the people that keep the power in the health care system do it only to steal money. The worst the hospital is, the bigger the fear of a patient, and therefore the bigger the bribe because he hopes that that will help to make the doctor save him.
Brooke: There's a scene where a burn victim's face is covered with maggots. There's a description of burn victims having sheets pulled over their faces while they're alive because the doctors don't want to look at them.
Alexander: Yes. They don't give them a chance. That's the thing, they know they have no chance because they will get infected in that hospital.
Brooke: You know it's a funny thing, I've noticed here in recent years following whistleblower-type incidents that they are so much more often women than men.
Alexander: I think that's a very important theme. All whistleblowers in the film and in reality because our film is the [laughs] reality basically, are women. Women in the Romanian society are just smarter, more courageous, and more caring. It's a fact. It can't be denied. As you see also worldwide, governments that are led by women have handled the COVID crisis a lot better than governments led by men.
Brooke: Thank you so much.
Alexander: Thank you.
Brooke: Alexander Nanau is the director of the documentary film Collective. Thanks for listening. Please check out the big show on Friday, usually gets posted around dinnertime.
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