By Michael Scoular

There’s nothing that can do justice to the terror of the footage that plays near the start of Alexander Nanau’s Colectiv: a fire, breaking out in the middle of a packed album-release show for metal-core band Goodbye to Gravity, destroys a venue with no sprinklers or fire exits, and what we see and hear is unbearable. No one discharges an extinguisher; the lights go out. The flames are burning the people inside alive. 

Documentaries showing horrific footage are nothing new; the question for the filmmakers (Nanau edits with George Cragg and Dana Bunescu) is just what to do around it. Here’s one sign they’re up to something different: there is practically no news footage. None of the victims are stuck under a lamp and asked to recount how they felt in the moment. There are no requests for families to open up their homes so a crew can observe the aftereffects of the tragedy on their lives.Nanau has been making films since the Romanian New Wave first broke through at Cannes without ever being counted among their membership, but here his interests overlap. The plots he follows go through journalistic and then governmental channels, as the death toll rises to over 60—not because of the fire, but due to bureaucratic corruption and medical malpractice. What sets Colectiv apart isn’t just the emotional heft of its story, or the speechlessness it brings about in both its idealistic and venal subjects, but how it never simply adopts the POV of any of its subjects, instead judiciously choosing scenes in offices and press rooms that represent what all the information and reports can’t.