“We were asked to make a list of values that bring success or failure in life. With success I trust friendship, solidarity, hard work, altruism, study. With failure I trust selfishness, deceit, submission.”
Alex Hogea was 18 when he wrote this in one of his high-school tests. One year later, in October 2015, he was a victim of the fire in the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest. He died four weeks later in Vienna from several bacterial infections that he contracted while hospitalised in Bucharest. Alex was one of 64 people at the club killed by either the fire or negligence in the Romanian healthcare system.
Alex trusted the values that would keep his family – and Romanian society – together after the fire: friendship, solidarity and altruism. Yet most of us, including the press, feel that we have failed him. Today the truth has been brought to light, but justice has not been served. For the truth can be exposed by storytellers or proven by journalists, but only when justice is delivered does it become law. More than five years after the fire, nobody is behind bars. There have been prosecutions and some sentences, including for the club’s owners, but appeals are still being heard and other cases haven’t even reached a court yet. As for the state of the country’s health system, 10 Covid patients were killed in a fire in a hospital ICU last year.
Our work on our documentary, Collective, started as we were watching the news right after the fire. Twenty-seven people died that night; they burned in a venue that was functioning without fire exits. As 37 more were slowly dying in hospitals from injuries that were not life-threatening, the authorities kept lying, saying everything was under control when in fact Romania didn’t have the capacity to treat severe burn patients.
The documentary follows the efforts of a team of journalists at the Gazeta Sporturilor (Sports Gazette) and whistleblowers alike. We were there when the paper discovered and proved that hospital disinfectants were being diluted; when the minister of health resigned; when hospitals were proven to be rife with bribery; when it was revealed that the healthcare conditions were so bad that, in one case, maggots were living on the body of a burns patient.
Collective is a story about the system versus people, about truth versus manipulation, about how easily citizens can be crushed by the very state that is supposed to protect them. We wanted to bring the story of the victims, survivors, families, whistleblowers and journalists to the world. Their story has been told and it will not be easily forgotten now that Collective has been nominated for two Academy Awards: best documentary and best international feature.
In Romania, corruption and incompetence are considered parts of the culture, contributing to the national identity. Generations grew up mocking them and accepting them too easily, even after the fall of communism. These generations have devised their own laws and built their own institutions in the country’s democratic era, creating the conditions for many “harmless” irregularities in the system, bribery just being one of many.
There is a scene in Collective that captures a late-night meeting between the new minister of health and a whistleblower doctor. She talks about the negligence of medical personnel and about the doctors who bribe their superiors so they can work on the wards they want to. The minister asks in disbelief: “How can all this be solved?” This is the same question that audiences ask after watching the film. An answer may be found after understanding first what has brought us here. Alex Hogea, killed at 19, defined as what breeds failure: selfishness, deceit, submission.
In the midst of a global healthcare crisis, we discover corruption and incompetence at the highest level of many governments. Many of us now know how it feels when healthcare systems look like they might fail, when profiteering and greed bleed the public realm of its duties to the common good. For citizens of democratic countries around the world, the past several years have been a journey of helplessness, anger and panic. Whether you’re American, British, Brazilian or Hungarian, the repeated nightmare of our democracies under assault has made many more alert to the fragility of the system.
Citizens of democratic states, from different cultures around the world, are recognising the most beautiful yet terrifying truth about our democracies: they cannot be taken for granted. Being a citizen of a democratic country carries a responsibility that can’t be totally passed on to rightfully elected politicians. The power belongs to the people, to every single one of the people – and with it, the responsibility.