During a rock concert on 30 October 2015, the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest, Romania, was the scene of a catastrophic fire. Some 27 people died at the venue, 180 were injured, 37 of whom died in the weeks after the disaster.

The primary cause of death among those who were hospitalised by the fire was hospital acquired infections. Some died awaiting bungled arrangements by the Romanian state for their transfer to hospitals abroad.

Anger over both the fire and the devastating failures of the Romanian healthcare system in its aftermath gave rise to a massive protest movement against corruption. That movement was fed by a brave piece of investigative journalism by Catalin Tolontan, editor of the Sports Gazette newspaper, and his team.

The paper exposed the widespread use in Romanian hospitals of medical disinfectants, supplied by local company Hexi Pharma, which had been diluted to just 10 percent of their stated strength. It quickly became clear that the company was using an existing web of corruption at the highest levels of the Romanian state. It paid off politicians and hospital managers in order to procure contracts for dangerous cleaning products.

These events are at the centre of Alexander Nanau’s exceptional, feature-length documentary Collective: Unravelling a Scandal. The film, which has two nominations in this year’s Oscars, follows Tolontan’s investigations into Hexi Pharma and state corruption.

Following the mass protests over the Colectiv fire, the Romanian state appointed a technocratic administration in place of the government of the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD). Nanau’s film gains behind-the-scenes access to health minister Vlad Voiculescu, the patients’ rights activist appointed by the new administration in the aftermath of the diluted disinfectants revelations. 

The power of the documentary lies in the careful and subtle way in which it builds up a picture of what Romanian activists rightly call a “mobster state”. The film has no narration. It prefers to gradually widen its political focus until it becomes clear to the viewer that, behind the Colectiv disaster and the disinfectant scandal, there is an infrastructure of ubiquitous state corruption.

Nanau’s film is gripping in its fly-on-the-wall account of both the Sports Gazette’s investigations and Voiculescu’s efforts to unravel the network of corruption in the healthcare system. It is also deeply moving in its focus upon the survivors of the Colectiv fire and the loved ones of the victims.

There is particular power, for example, in the scenes that reflect the experience of Tedy Ursuleanu, a young woman who suffered life-changing injuries at the Colectiv. Her use of her wounds in works of photographic art is especially poignant.

The film speaks to the gangsterism that is inherent in the kind of unregulated, neoliberal capitalism that swept through much of the former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In many cases the corrupt, repressive Stalinists who had been overthrown returned to power in league with a new generation of oligarchs and mobsters.

This was true of Vladimir Putin in Russia, and it also happened in Romania. It will come as little surprise to genuine, democratic socialists that the PSD—the party at the centre of the corruption in Romania—was founded by Ion Iliescu. He was, for many years, a senior leader in the Communist Party of Stalinist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

Aside from being a brilliantly constructed piece of documentary film making, Collective shows how mass political action and brave investigative journalism can combine to bring about social change. As Britain emerges from the pandemic—with in late March more than 148,000 deaths and a string of highly dubious Covid-related contracts to be investigated—that lesson could hardly be more relevant.

Collective can be viewed in the UK as part of the Storyville series on BBC iPlayer: bbc.co.uk/iplayere