Searing Romanian Oscar contender tackles botched response to nightclub fire

Luiza Ilie
·3-min read
Narcis Hogea, father of a victim of Colectiv fire, reacts during interview in Sinaia

By Luiza Ilie

SINAIA, Romania (Reuters) - For Romanian father Narcis Hogea, who lost his son Alexandru in a Bucharest nightclub fire in 2015, the botched response to the disaster shown in the Oscar-nominated documentary film "Collective" remains an open wound.

Alexandru, a 19-year-old computer science student, was among 65 people who died as a result of the blaze at the Colectiv nightclub, a tragedy that exposed incompetence and corruption in Romania's healthcare system.

The film, which follows a team of investigative journalists as they uncover deeply ingrained problems in hospitals, has resonated with audiences at a time when healthcare or the lack of it have been on everyone's mind because of COVID-19.

Directed by Romanian Alexander Nanau, it is in the running for Oscars in two categories: International Feature Film and Documentary (Feature).

For Hogea, who is seen at his son's grave in the film, the events shown could not be more painful. He remembers Alexandru as an affectionate young man, always ready for a hug with his parents or his sister, and the life and soul of every party.

Hogea says he is still living in fear because of what happened to his son, who was among victims rushed to hospitals that turned out to be unable to care for them adequately.

"We have changed completely," Hogea said. "When you go through a tragedy like this, you start being afraid and it's a feeling that never goes away, coupled with the fact that you cannot be happy."

The documentary focuses on the then editor of the Gazeta Sporturilor newspaper, Catalin Tolontan, and his team, as they reveal shocking failings, such as the use of diluted disinfectants to treat burn victims.

LEGACY OF FEAR, DISTRUST

Potentially life-saving transfers of patients to hospitals in other countries were delayed after the fire because Romanian officials claimed they had everything they needed to handle the situation, which was not true.

Follow-up investigations uncovered corrupt procurement practices involving politically-appointed hospital managers. Most of the court trials that followed resulted in convictions, although appeals are still pending.

"Certainly, justice takes longer, and should, than journalistic investigations. But it is true that after five years not having a final ruling is too much … and this unfortunately fuels people's distrust," Tolontan said.

The bungled response to the fire sparked nationwide protests against corruption in Romania, a European Union member which has one of the least developed healthcare systems in the bloc, and currently one of the highest coronavirus death rates.

Many fear not enough has changed since the Colectiv disaster. Two more recent fires, as well as an oxygen tank malfunction affecting hospitals treating COVID-19 patients, have left dozens dead or injured. Reform-minded health officials face obstruction.

Tolontan said some changes did happen, including double-digit rises in healthcare workers' wages, stemming an exodus of medical staff.

"If we didn't have the intensive care doctors we have today, we would have felt the pandemic much harder than we are already feeling it," he said.

Mihai Grecea, a Colectiv survivor who became an activist for patients' rights and now advises the health ministry, said there had been limited progress, but the state of the nation's hospitals remained concerning.

"I am nervous when I enter Romanian hospitals because the level of control authorities can exercise over what happens there is very low," said Grecea.

(Reporting by Luiza Ilie, editing by Estelle Shirbon)