A fire killed 27 in a nightclub, injuring many more. Yet the death toll was 64. Then a sports newspaper investigated the circumstances of the fire and found government corruption on a mind-numbing scale. How come it was a sports newspaper? How did they have the resources to do it? How did their management approve it?
The fire in question happened in 2015, in the European Union, in a Bucharest nightclub called Colectiv. Editor Cătălin Tolontan’s newsroom team had a history of investigative pieces on sports corruption and got interested in the lack of fire exits in the club.
A documentary maker was interested too and the result is a movie named Colectiv. It’s a story of horrors that doesn’t spare the viewer, something I can confirm, having passed a disturbed night after watching the subtitled version of Collective last evening.
The movie starts with local band Goodbye to Gravity performing on stage and the lead signer notices a fire in the ceiling. I’ve read today that somehow he survived. The rest of the band perished. And the mobile phones filming the scene have provided enough coverage to make you wonder how many more didn’t die in the smoke filled inferno.
The real story isn’t about the fire nor disinfectant. The diluted disinfectants that increase the death toll lead to the discovery of veritable cancers of corruption that have metastasised throughout the entire nation of Romania. What worries deputy editor, Mirela Neag, is that no one will believe the story. At an editorial meeting she says ‘It’s so mind-blowing, I’m afraid we will look crazy’.
I think you should see the movie and its documentation of facts that would appear incredible to a fiction editor, let alone a sports editor. And it does it without interviewing anyone. But always remember 64 people gave their lives and many, many more live lives were made miserable by these events. In short, it is an extraordinary news story of world class investigative journalism that happens to have been made into a superb movie.
There’s a recent update to the story that is a bit of good news. Alexander Nanau’s documentary has been submitted as Romania’s official Oscar entry for Best International Feature for 2020.
I’m still alive because there was good medical care to help me overcome sepsis in 2014. I consider it part of my ‘contract’ of citizenship that I’ll have a fighting chance when I get sick and I expect there to be people who will fight to keep me alive. I don’t expect to die with my face covered and maggots feeding on my charred ears because a hospital manger misappropriated funds in order to build himself a profitable medical facility in Switzerland.
You should watch Collective, as it’s named in English. Especially if you live in Ireland where the Stardust nightclub fire of 1981 that took 48 lives is still unresolved. I can opine that there is as yet no proper Stardust conclusion – I think I can say this because 48 new inquests were announced in 2019. Then the ‘provisional’ scope of these new inquests was announced in November 2020. I read that the coroner has said the inquests are expected to be ‘lengthy’ … a dimensionless understatement verging on litotes.
Collective is very disturbing on many levels yet I can’t write too much more lest I ‘spoil’ your viewing of the movie. And yet, I have to make a few references in order to make a point.
We see a massive, beautiful portrait of burnt arms and the fingerless hand of architect Tedy Ursuleanu as it hangs in the interim health minister Vlad Voiculescu’s office. Though she suffered third-degree burns on 45% of her body, is cruelly disfigured, it was her apparent stoicism and resilience that brought the tears to my eyes.
This is a story that would never have been told without journalists. The Sports Gazette (Gazeta Sporturilor) newspaper supported the investigation lead by editor Cătălin Tolontan. There are sports reporters who are asking the questions that the mainstream media should have been reporting. The movie documents the reporters’ search to expose fraud and corruption and how even the mainstream media tried to undermine their work. There are whistleblowers, mostly women, to be protected and the reporters themselves come under state surveillance.
The movie that resulted is as powerful and scary as Spotlight, This Is Not A Movie or All The President’s Men. Each of these movies documents the value of journalistic curiosity and determination as vital tools in the preservation of the open and transparent processes and procedures that sustain democracy. Each reminds us that it is the Fourth Estate (patra putere in Romanian) that monitors the maintenance of the separations of powers between the legislative, executive and judicial functions on which we rely for our security, health and welfare. Collective responsibility takes courage.
The most recent Corruption Perception Index (Feb 2020) published by Transparency International ranks Romania as joint 70th with South Africa, with two EU ranked lower. Ireland ranked 18 with ten EU nations ranked higher, of whom Denmark was perceived to be the least corrupt nation in the world. Not meaning to burst bubbles, CPI measures integrity at home not abroad.
We rented the movie here on Dogwoof.
An here are some quick links if you wish to start reading more widely on these topics:
- Collectiv: wiki fire wiki movie Guardian article
- Stardust: wiki RTE news
- Freedom of Expression: Irish PEN/PEN na hÉireann with links to other PEN centres
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