The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The documentary ‘Collective’ is about a deadly nightclub fire — and much, much more.

Vlad Voiculescu in “Collective.” (Magnolia Pictures)
(3.5 stars)

In 2015, a fire engulfed a popular Bucharest music club called Colectiv, taking the lives of 27 people in a breathtakingly sudden and deadly conflagration.

As a tragedy that became a national trauma in Romania, the fire was dramatic enough. But it’s not the central subject of “Collective,” an engrossing and, at times, astonishingly candid chronicle of what happened next. Directed by Alexander Nanau with an alert eye for character and detail, this alternately illuminating and infuriating portrait of everyday bureaucratic corruption becomes a much larger, and more disturbing, portrayal of structural incompetence, indifference and moral rot.

Within two weeks of the devastating fire, more than 35 additional people had died in Bucharest hospitals, a horrific number of fatalities that officials chalked up to a “communications error.” A mix of tribal chauvinism and nationalistic pride prevented the transfer of patients to better-equipped burn units in Austria and Germany; the result was a travesty of medical ethics, corporate greed and governmental complicity leading to unspeakable suffering and needless loss.

When a whistleblower alerts one of Romania’s most famous sports journalists that the state is lying about the hospital deaths, he and his team get to work, bringing Nanau and his camera along with them. What ensues is a taut procedural thriller featuring offshore bribe schemes, at least one suspicious death and the ascent of a young, idealistic health minister whose commitment to transparency is severely tested by institutions entrenched in secrets and mendacity.

Nanau hews to the quiet observational style of cinema verite throughout “Collective,” which is so seamlessly constructed that it’s easy to forget just how extraordinary his access was to confidential meetings, newspaper interviews and other sensitive events. Although it’s sometimes suggested that documentaries have become the new journalism, this film exemplifies why that isn’t true: While celebrating the dogged shoe-leather process followed by the reporters, Nanau does something different than mere fact-finding, weaving in the story of an intrepid fire survivor named Tedy — who deploys her burned body as inspiration for a series of beautiful and confrontational photographs — as well as Vlad, a former medical activist who unexpectedly takes the reins at the health ministry and tries his best to change a deeply flawed system from within.

Like Frederick Wiseman’s recent film, “City Hall,” Nanau’s “Collective” present viewers with an unobtrusive snapshot of how the public trust is either rewarded or, in this case, abused with shocking callousness and impunity. In many ways, “Collective” is the anti-“City Hall,” meeting Wiseman’s humanistic perspective with something far more pessimistic, especially when it comes to Vlad’s political fate. Nanau has made an informative documentary about a story that most Americans never heard of, and pulls the lens back just enough to encapsulate the low and dishonest age of global populism.

Unrated. Available at and Contains brief profanity and disturbing images. In English and Romanian with subtitles. 109 minutes.