On October 30, 2015, a local metal band performed in a crowded club in Midtown Bucharest as part of the launch of a new album. “We’re not numbers, we’re free, we’re so alive (so alive) / Because the day we give in is the day we die (the day we die).” That was the lyrics to one of the band’s new songs, “The Day We Die”.
Soon these words became a mantra for protesters. This concert would be the last for the relatively unknown band Goodbye to Gravity. Four of the five bandmates died along with 60 other people in the fire that broke out in the club that night. It sparked a political and social crisis in Romania that continues to this day and that inspired the Oscar-nominated documentary Collective.
The tragedy that would be known simply as “Colectiv” (the name of the nightclub) became a turning point for the Eastern European country – a crisis that has not occurred since the 1989 revolution that ended Communist Party’s rule was watching.
Romania is the lowest among the countries of the European Union in terms of quality of life and well-being of society and has the lowest expenditure on health care and education in the block. For young people in particular, there is a sharp gap between what they see in other EU countries when they travel or work in other countries and the reality of Romanian life. One of the biggest problems is corruption.
Corruption was also the main character in the collective tragedy. The nightclub received permission from the mayor to operate without the necessary security and fire protection measures. The club had not received a permit from the fire department, had soundproof material that was extremely flammable, and there weren’t enough exits to legally stand the number of people the club hosted each night. 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. 64 people died – some on the scene, some later, many of whom succumbed to infections they contracted while receiving treatment in Romanian hospitals instead of suffering from burns themselves. Corruption was killed here too.
The victims were treated with disinfectants that had been watered down to save money before they even reached the hospitals, thereby developing resistance to life-saving antibiotics. While contamination rates were underreported, hospitals argued that they were more than equipped to treat dozens of fire victims. They refused to send some abroad and effectively sealed their fate.
Alexandru Hogea, a victim remembered in the documentary, was 19 years old when he died in a Viennese hospital after contracting infections in a Romanian hospital. The hospital where he was treated refused to release him for care abroad, which delayed the process and thus the young man’s chances of survival.
Alexander Nanau, the director of the film, said colectiv was a turning point in Romanian society. “I’ve seen the full blow to a democratic European society that never imagined that dozens of people could die walking to a club. The fire in Colectiv was a national trauma. It felt like everyone in the country was a part of it, ”he said in his director’s notes.
The tragedy gathered people. Outrage over the endemic corruption that ruled the country broke out after Colectiv. It was not just a coincidental calamity, but an accumulation of social grievances that allowed this fire.
Theodor Vasilescu, 27, was supposed to be at the concert that evening before being dragged away at the last minute. “I thought it was just a fire like any other. But then it got serious. My phone rang like crazy. Everyone kept asking me if I was okay, hoping I wasn’t there, ”he told me. “The next few days were blurry. We checked hospitals for missing friends and acquaintances in the hopes that we would find them there rather than in a morgue. “
The fire sparked a desire for change and a public discussion about the direction the country was going. Protests followed, people marched on the streets with signs saying “Corruption Kills”, but little has changed.
The then government stepped back from increasing public pressure, but structural problems persisted. Political and administrative restructuring was necessary to silence people’s anger, but the system has not changed. A handful of journalists from a Bucharest-based sports newspaper known for its complex stories of sports corruption took on the new challenge of figuring out how the state was caring for Colectiv’s victims.
Catalin Tolontan, the journalist who leads the investigation on which the documentary is based, said extensive efforts had been made to cover up the health system’s failures. The investigation follows a string of absurd illegals exposing the dire state of the healthcare system, from bribes and lies to secret offshore accounts to a mysterious suicide.
There was “an institutional lie about how the authorities handled the tragedy perfectly … [w]While young people injured in the fire kept dying in hospitals, ”Nanau said in his notes.
Despite public pressure, national outcry, and human deaths, society went on as if Colectiv had never happened. The politicization of the health system, low trust in government services and authorities, and the symbiotic relationship between power and politics are truer today than ever as Romania faces one health crisis after another amid 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 the opportunity to make a change, but unfortunately we didn’t take advantage of it,” he said.
“Perhaps we have only won that the voice of civil society has become stronger and the people have become more intransigent when they have spoken out and protested. Otherwise nothing has changed. On the contrary, it has only gotten worse, “he added, pointing to two fires in COVID-19 wards that have occurred in recent months.
The sociologist believes that there will be no fundamental reform 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 abhor corruption, nepotism, privilege and preferential treatment – unless it benefits us and has a direct impact on our wellbeing. Until we realize that change begins in each of us, the system cannot and will not change, ”said Duminica.
Many young Romanians share this view. Romania has some of the largest number of overseas citizens, making the country’s diaspora the fifth largest in the world.
Anne Ionescu, 25, was just starting her freshman year as a medical student in Bucharest when the fire occurred.
“I remember them showing the faces of all the young people who died on TV and I just started crying uncontrollably,” she said.
Six years after the disaster, Ionescu believes nothing has changed for the better and is considering leaving the country. “The conditions in the hospitals do not come from that time. … At that time there was an attempt to change something, there was an energy, but nothing came off. It just feels like there’s a constant feeling of helplessness emerging in our country, ”she said.
The success and response Nanau’s documentary has received around the world is proof that stories can make a difference. However, it takes more than one opening for systemic changes to occur.
Colectiv created the space for discussion, but the system was and still is not ready to listen. The film raised awareness of Romania’s struggles against corruption, but it would be presumptuous to say that it resulted in a public settlement. The issue of corruption has become something of a paradox within the Romanian collective psyche – a persistent issue and source of constant frustration – but people have learned to live with and even dislike it.
Many have lost hope that real reforms are 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 subsides and people forget what happened. It doesn’t look like anything is going to change and I’m not ready to stay here and wait for that change to happen. “