TIFF 2016 Review: The Fixer
The word procedure comes up in the opening minutes of Adrian Sitaru’s The Fixer, and it doesn’t come as a surprise hearing the word in a Romanian production. The Romanian New Wave of the 21st century has dealt with how people behave under strict, bureaucratic systems. Cristian Mungiu covered the Ceausescu era and religion in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days and Beyond the Hills respectively, Cristi Puiu targeted health care in The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, and now Sitaru takes on the media with his film, a sort of anti-Spotlight that looks at how attitudes of self-preservation have corrupted the press.
Radu (Tudor Istodor) works as a trainee for the Associated French Press, where he’s earned the reputation of helping journalists “fix” any problems they might have while putting together a story. He’s currently in the middle of breaking a “big” story involving two underage Romanian prostitutes getting repatriated from France back to their home country. Radu sees the story as an opportunity to prove himself in the company, so he teams up with French reporter Axel (Mehdi Nebbou) to produce a report for a Dateline-esque investigative news program in France. Their goal is to score an interview with one of the girls, a 14-year-old forced into becoming a sex worker, but various systemic roadblocks cause them to rely on unethical means to gain access to their subject.
Sitaru doesn’t bother trying to cloak his themes or messages in symbolism or ambiguity; it’s apparent early on that he takes a critical view of the media in its current form, portraying it as a world as cutthroat as any other business in its pursuit of results. At the beginning, Radu and a co-worker meet with Romanian police to try and convince them to interview one of the young girls. The police reject their request, but Radu persists, repeating the same question in different ways to try and appeal to the police officer. If Radu were pursuing a story like exposing corruption or taking on a large target, his acts might be seen as noble attempts at getting the truth, but this is trying to put a teenage victim of sexual abuse on camera. The intent may be just, but the means of achieving a successful story involve some seriously questionable behavior.
Sitaru’s direction, along with the screenplay by Claudia and Adrian Silisteanu, have a naturalism and clarity that helps deliver its points in a way that doesn’t feel forced or too on-the-nose. Granted, Sitaru doesn’t exactly take a subtle approach, but it can lead to some nice, comic results, like when Axel starts directing some farmers on how to look natural when filming them for B-roll footage. There’s a surprisingly light tone throughout, with Sitaru providing some interesting digressions from the plot as Radu and Axel make various stops across Romania while trying to score their interview. A highlight comes during a visit to a bar when an impromptu singalong to Edith Piaf breaks out. These moments of levity bring some added depth to Radu, showing a side of him that implies a moral standard that clashes with his duties as a reporter.
And that eventually turns out to be the case, as Radu begins doubting what he’s doing as he brushes more ethical boundaries aside. Certain sequences, like a discussion between Radu, Axel, and a nun taking care of the young girl, provide brief, riveting moments where topics like journalism and morality become topics for debate that provide more doubt for Radu. It isn’t until the final act, where Radu finally comes face to face with the person he’s been chasing after, that the ramifications of his actions finally click in, and Sitaru makes his most damning statement when he equates Radu’s exploitation of his interview subject with the man who pimped her out. It’s a strong statement, but one Sitaru does a fine job building up to.
It’s thanks to Sitaru’s assuredness behind the camera that makes The Fixer a small, impressive film that inspires debate over how far the media should be willing to go in order to obtain a story. Sitaru shows that, in the quest to shine a light on victims, more damage might be done, and when the focus shifts more to the end than the means, it only creates new victims. Procedure, it turns out, is only an opportunity for people to find ways to get around it.