Adrian Sitaru is a Romanian filmmaker whose films explore moral dilemmas with strong formal structures, including Best Intentions (2011), which won the Best Director prize at Locarno.
His latest film, The Fixer (2016), looks at the impact that journalists have on the subjects of a sex scandal story and how this reverberates in the personal life of one of the journalists. The film had its world premiere at TIFF 2016, where Adrian discussed the production of the film and his own moral dilemma as a filmmaker with Christopher Heron.
The Seventh Art: I didn’t realize when watching the film how personally conflicted you are with your past as a filmmaker, which I found out about when I read your statement on the film in the press notes. It made me think of the subject of different jobs have a different expectation of morality and I’m curious what you think of the morality expected of a journalist (in the film) vs. your job as a filmmaker.
Adrian Sitaru: This issue of morality does appear more or less in each film I have, I have maybe my own moral dilemmas with what we are doing. For The Fixer, the story is inspired a true story. My D.O.P, before being a D.O.P worked as a fixer and best boy for France-Presse in Bucharest and happened to meet this girl. So it’s not my story, but I was very attracted to being so similar with my team in my films, but I also felt that in my job as filmmaker, sometimes I am abusing people or children or animals – I did a film Domestic with many domestic animals. I felt I was abusing in the name of art, we are going to Cannes and it’s very easy… of course we do it with the best intention when we abuse other people and I needed time to think about the past, what I did wrong – not illegal, but it’s a problem. This issue for me was a part of the story with The Fixer because we need this journalist to do it with passion and enthusiasm, with their best intentions to have a report, but at what price? This was the thing that the D.O.P said after he came back from a report he had done in real life, he felt that because they are really well paid, the journalists, and these poor people are left in maybe more danger than before. You don’t know even what happens. In a war it’s even worse. We studied, we researched and talked with a lot of journalists who told us maybe more traumatic stories about their own behaviour in trying to be objective. There are many famous stories about this, the picture where the bird is close to a child [Kevin Carter’s The vulture and the little girl]. It’s difficult. I like somehow the discovery of the grey zone where it’s not easy to say if this is good or bad. I think more or less I have in all my films this moral issue or debatable thing because I have my own dilemmas, maybe in trying to do these types of films I am trying to find my own answers from doing the film or from the audience – I don’t know. I don’t have answers actually [laughs].
Before seeing this I read an article about the role of fixers for Vice and how they weren’t even treating their own fixers that well, they were having difficulty even getting paid – they’re not even getting that reward. Then you consider that these things are done with the intention of provoking change, but with the shortened news cycle, you wonder if anyone even remembers a day later.
Yeah, for sure. The French actor has a very good friend who was a war journalist and is now a big star in TV news in France. He told him and us a lot of weird stories, because he was in the press after doing this for years, he had a depression not only for what he saw in the war zone, but also what he did and how he acted. If you want to do a good job as a journalist, sometimes you have to be – not immoral, but to do things you can’t handle so easily after all. Even in other professions, like doctors have to make tough choices, especially in countries with bad systems. I hear in Romania there aren’t many cases for doctors and they have to choose between old people and young people, to choose to operate on a young one… It’s ethical or not? It’s difficult to tell what’s wrong. In a way it’s wrong, but you don’t know what to do. The worst case, it’s interesting, it’s easy to judge from the outside, but what do you do when you are there and you have to choose under pressure. It’s human behaviour finally and that’s what I’m most interesting.
Editing is something I am drawn to in your films and in this one I noticed in some of those awkward scenes where behaviour is being questioned, there’s fewer cuts. How did you develop the editing and formal structure for the film?
It was a big question and finally it came easily because when we found out it’s about journalism and shooting a report, the D.O.P had worked for France-Presse and I had worked in television for two years (not camera operator, more technical stuff). We started to think how some reports, especially in Romania, they are very professional, looking nice, but they have some tricks and gimmicks to use, like zooms. It’s very cheesy, superficial, but it works for a report. We thought how to bring this style to our movies. We decided to use zooms and to feel like the crew of the film were shooting a report. We wanted to be more stylized. After we decided on this concept we tried a couple things, 360-degrees, we played with it and we started to think what was working, artistic and close to cheesy things – these zooms are very like soap opera.
Or even the history of conspiracy films.
Exactly. I think it works. After we started to work on this idea it was easy to adapt to each situation.
I noticed some of those zooms are particularly focused on objects: a stopwatch, the camera. It makes the viewer more aware of these recording or measuring devices, especially when they come at the start of a scene.
Yes, I think it was a matter of editing. I work with a very good editor [Mircea Olteanu], who I also worked with on Illegitimate (2016) and he has edited documentaries. He’s edited [Cristian] Mungiu’s films. At a certain point we cut very abruptly, it happens sometimes in reports because there is a voiceover and there are images that are cut quickly to support the voiceover. It’s also a matter of feeling how you are editing, but I think a lot came from [Olteanu]. I liked the style, it brought something more than just what we spot. A lot of times while editing we put the question, “If you are doing a report on this guy, he has a kind of face, are you not trying to stay on him to show the public…” Maybe you’re focused on him to show him crying, this is what’s happening in TV shows and something is happening where they’re trying to have cheap emotions. We tried sometimes to imitate or to imagine how a soap opera or TV show would edit in this situation.
Maybe it’s from having watched Best Intentions, but I was always aware of the point-of-view of each shot. It does cross-over when they are interviewing the woman in the film, because you wonder if we’re seeing the shot that the people seeing the report would see, even though we are seeing the adjustment of her mic – it’s maybe the raw footage they would turn in to the TV station. Did you consider the overlap of the camera for the film and the camera in the film?
Yeah, I’m working with the D.O.P since my first short film, so we know each other very well and we’re discussing, but only after we start the shooting when you know the space. After shooting one way we sometimes think after that maybe we need another angle for better storytelling. For the mic, we didn’t plan for it. Maybe just preparing for the scene, it was not improvisation, but the actor tried to help and the camera was on and it looked great so we shot it. We didn’t plan many things, but when you are in a set-up it’s more clear to us what it should be, what angles. Of course, sometimes we are doing too many angles to cover everything. In that scene in the car it was very difficult, four people in the car with an Alexa camera, it was difficult to shoot. Also, because of the acting, it was a very tough scene. It’s a creative process until the end of the last take, we are changing and developing.
There’s something about the score that builds a tension that made me think the story would erupt into violence, there’s a dread, but it never really does. There’s an inevitability about everything that happens and outside of the rock throwing, it’s never that violent.
Usually in my films and maybe even Romanian films there isn’t music, but in this case we only used it when it was a source in the film. There’s pop Hindi music in the car, then of course music in the restaurant. In editing, I felt and we felt that we needed music because sometimes it’s really dark what’s happening, it can bring it back to relief. There was no need to have this like a TV show or report to create an affect. It was a matter of style, we tried in editing to add more music, but it was not necessary.
How did you develop that restaurant scene?
It was in the script, it probably happened a scene like that for the real person, the D.O.P. It happened to be an expensive restaurant with food and everything. In Romania there are many absurd things where it’s a mixture between music and… Maybe we added more when I found out that the actor that we chose can play the saxophone. Usually I like to use all the skills of the actors, so let’s somehow put this skill in. What does it mean that you can play the saxophone? It means you come from a family with money, they had money to teach saxophone, which is different from the family of this poor girl. But also to add something nice in that scene.
From this process and self-reflection, have you learned how to be more egalitarian or cooperative and less as you said, exploitative, in how you behave as a director?
Yes, for instance if I had done this film ten years ago, the process of casting – and this was a big issue for us – the minor actress, because it’s very easy to say, “Let’s find a girl who it’s happened.” In Romania you can find her, but this is the problem to put her again in that situation, reenact these things, it’s dangerous. Then, to have a girl who is 14 or 15 to not being affected by what he’s doing in the film. So we talked with psychologists, my girlfriend is also a psychologist, deciding how to do it – it was important that we first gave the scripts to the parents, talk with the parents. It was very interesting. We met the girl who was 14 or 15, very talented, but at a certain moment at the end we asked, “Do you know what oral sex means?” “Yes, of course, to do it for one hour.” When we understood she didn’t know at all, okay thank you; it’s impossible to have her in the film, it would be affective – it’s not a matter of age, but to do these things and push her to learn earlier. It’s a kind of abuse. So we found a girl who knew everything, the father is a policeman. He said, she’s smart, she knows a lot, has a cousin who’s bigger, and realized she would not be affected by what we did in the film. I hope I learned something from this experience, thinking a lot actually in the writing process, discussing with others what it means to abuse your own children when you are pushing them to do piano or something – any kind of forcing or manipulating is abuse. Now I have a daughter and I think twice or maybe ten times more when I’m trying to impose something, I’m trying not to impose. This is the meaning of the last scene in the film. He wants to follow the boy, but he doesn’t want to push him, so he keeps a distance. It’s a matter of what you are saying, how you are talking with him, not what you are saying.