Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

A National Trauma May Win Romania Its First Oscar

“Collective” details how corruption sparked a fire and a political crisis.

By , a journalist in Romania.
A young girl wearing wings is embraced by another next to candles lit in the memory of the victims of  the "Colectiv" nightclub fire in Bucharest, Romania on October 30, 2020.
A young girl wearing wings is embraced by another next to candles lit in the memory of the victims of the "Colectiv" nightclub fire in Bucharest, Romania on October 30, 2020. Daniel Mihailescu/AFP via Getty Images

On Oct. 30, 2015, in a crowded club in midtown Bucharest, a local metal band performed as part of the launch of a new album. “We’re not numbers, we’re free, we’re so alive (so alive) / ’Cause the day we give in is the day we die (the day we die).” So went the lyrics of one of the band’s new songs, “The Day We Die.”

Soon, those words became a mantra for protesters. That concert would be the last for the relatively unknown band, Goodbye to Gravity. Four of the five bandmates, along with 60 other people, died in the fire that erupted at the club that night. It sparked a political and social crisis in Romania, one that is still reverberating today and that inspired the Oscar-nominated documentary Collective.

On Oct. 30, 2015, in a crowded club in midtown Bucharest, a local metal band performed as part of the launch of a new album. “We’re not numbers, we’re free, we’re so alive (so alive) / ’Cause the day we give in is the day we die (the day we die).” So went the lyrics of one of the band’s new songs, “The Day We Die.”

Soon, those words became a mantra for protesters. That concert would be the last for the relatively unknown band, Goodbye to Gravity. Four of the five bandmates, along with 60 other people, died in the fire that erupted at the club that night. It sparked a political and social crisis in Romania, one that is still reverberating today and that inspired the Oscar-nominated documentary Collective.

The tragedy, which would simply be known as “Colectiv” (the name of the nightclub), became a tipping point for the Eastern European country—a crisis unlike anything seen since the 1989 revolution that ended Communist Party rule.

Romania ranks lowest among European Union states in quality of life and well-being of society and has among the lowest levels of spending on health care and education in the bloc. For the young, in particular, there’s a sharp divide between what they see in other EU states when they travel or work in other countries and the reality of Romanian life. One of the biggest issues is corruption.

Corruption was also the main actor in the Colectiv tragedy. The nightclub was given a license by the mayor to operate without having the necessary safety measures and fire precautions in place. The club had not been issued a permit by the fire department, it had soundproof material that was extremely flammable, and it didn’t have enough exits to legally withstand the number of people the club hosted on a nightly basis. But with the right payments behind the scenes, none of this mattered.

A spark spread from the show’s pyrotechnics, and the ceiling quickly caught fire. Sixty-four people died—some at the scene, some later on, many of whom succumbed to infections they caught while being treated in Romanian hospitals, rather than from burn injuries themselves. Here, again, corruption killed.

The victims were treated with disinfectants that were watered down to save money even before they reached the hospitals, causing them to develop resistance to lifesaving antibiotics. While contamination rates went underreported, hospitals argued that they were more than equipped to treat dozens of burn victims, refusing to send some abroad, effectively sealing their fates.

Alexandru Hogea, a victim remembered in the documentary, was 19 when he died in a Vienna hospital after contracting infections in a Romanian hospital. The hospital he was treated at refused to release him to care abroad, delaying the process and, along with it, the young man’s chances of survival.

Alexander Nanau, the director of the film, has said Colectiv represented a turning point in Romanian society. “I experienced the full extent of the blow suffered by a democratic European society which could never have imagined that dozens of people could die when going out to a club. The fire at Colectiv was a national trauma. It felt like everybody in the country was part of it,” he said in his director’s notes.

The tragedy rallied people. The outrage toward the endemic corruption that was ruling the country burst open after Colectiv. It was not just a random misfortune but rather a collection of societal ills that allowed this fire to happen.

Theodor Vasilescu, 27, was supposed to be at the concert that night, before being pulled away at the last minute. “I thought it was just a fire, like any other. But then, things started to get serious. My phone was ringing like crazy. Everyone kept asking me if I was okay, that they hoped I wasn’t there,” he told me. “The next few days went in a blur. We were checking hospitals for missing friends and acquaintances, hoping that we would find them there and not in a morgue.”

The fire sparked a desire for change and a public discussion about the direction the country was taking. Protests followed, people marched in the streets with signs reading “Corruption kills,” but little changed.

The government at the time resigned from the mounting public pressure, but the structural problems remained. Political and administrative reshuffles were necessary to silence people’s anger, but the system hasn’t altered. A handful of journalists from a Bucharest-based sports newspaper, which became renowned for its complex stories on sports corruption, took on the fresh challenge of unraveling how the state cared for the Colectiv victims.

Catalin Tolontan, the journalist leading the investigation that the documentary is based on, has said there was a wide-scale effort to cover up the missteps of the health care system. The investigation follows a series of preposterous illegalities, unraveling the catastrophic state of the health care system, from bribes and lies to secret offshore accounts and a mysterious suicide.

There was “an institutional lie about how the authorities were perfectly managing the tragedy … [w]hile young people injured in the fire kept dying in hospitals,” Nanau said in his notes.

Yet despite public pressure, national outcry, and loss of life, society moved on as if Colectiv never happened. The politicization of the health care system, the low level of trust in state services and authority, and the symbiotic relationship between power and politics ring truer than ever today, as Romania faces one health crisis after another in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Gelu Duminica, a sociologist at the University of Bucharest, agrees that not much has changed six years after the tragedy. “Colectiv created an opportunity for a change to occur, but unfortunately we failed to make use of it,” he said.

“Perhaps the only thing we gained is that the voice of civil society became stronger and people have become more adamant in speaking out and protesting. Apart from this, nothing changed. On the contrary, it’s only gotten worse,” he added, pointing to two fires in COVID-19 wards that have taken place in the last few months.

The sociologist believes that no fundamental reform will come about unless the social fabric of the country changes in a meaningful way. “It’s about a certain culture and mentality that we share as a nation: We loathe corruption, nepotism, privilege, preferential treatment—unless it benefits us and has a direct impact on our well-being. Until we realize that change starts within every single one of us, the system can’t and will not change,” Duminica said.

This view is shared by many young Romanians. Romania has some of the highest numbers of citizens living abroad, making the country’s diaspora the fifth-biggest in the world.

Anne Ionescu, 25, was just starting her first year as a medical student in Bucharest when the fire occurred.

“I remember they were showing the faces of all those young people who died on TV and I just started crying uncontrollably,” she said.

Six years on from the disaster, Ionescu believes that nothing has changed for the better and is thinking of leaving the country. “The conditions in the hospitals are not from this era. … There was an attempt back then to change something, there was an energy, but nothing materialized. It just feels like there’s this constant sense of helplessness looming over our country,” she said.

The success and reception that Nanau’s documentary has received around the world are proof that stories can make an impact. However, it takes more than an opening for systemic change to occur.

Colectiv created the space for a discussion to be had, but the system was not ready to listen and still isn’t. The film has raised awareness about Romania’s struggles with corruption, but it would be presumptuous to say that it has led to a public reckoning. The issue of corruption has become sort of a paradox within the Romanian collective psyche—a perennial issue and a source of constant frustration—yet people have learnt to live with it and even dismiss it.

Many have lost hope that real reform is possible.

“You can’t change a system simply by protesting,” said Vasilescu, the young man who could have died that night. “Over time, the pain starts to fade away, and people forget what happened. It doesn’t look like anything is about to change, and I am not willing to stick around and wait for that change to happen.”

Malina Mindrutescu is a journalist in Romania.