Camera Buff (1979) – The Unyielding Passion of a Contented Factory Worker

By Arun Kumar

Featured in IMDb Critic Reviews
Camera Buff, Movie Poster, Krzysztof Kieslowski
Camera Buff (1979) By Krzysztof Kieslowski
Polish auteur Krzysztof Kieslowski’s third feature film “Camera Buff” aka “Amator” (1979) is one of the important, transitional works in his oeuvre. Unlike Kieslowski’s previous films and documentaries, here there was less of overt social commentary and the focus is more on ethical dilemmas faced by an individual. The ideas in “Amator” depart from distinct political and cultural perspective to showcase universal emotional struggles. Kieslowski’s moral and metaphysical exploration of individuals later resulted in some of his greatest acclaimed works like “Dekalog”, “Three Colorstrilogy (screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz and producer Marin Karmitz played an important role in bringing these works to fruition). The great film scholar M.K. Raghavendra in his book “Director’s Cut” explains the absence of ‘private space’ in communist state: “Since politics is not a dominant concerning the West, its film-makers can explore ‘private life’ independent of history and politics……… when Polish film-makers like Kieslowski and Zanussi embark upon exploration of the personal in films they are less convincing perhaps because ‘private life’ is still a recent habit and their films are left without a credible subject”. From that perspective, “Amator” could be seen as a film well within the framework of East European political cinema, but at the same time it also explores how individual transformation happens, irrespective of sociopolitical factors. Like all of Kieslowski’s works, this earlier work too contains a lot of autobiographical elements and the film mostly reflects the question the auteur himself faced in the late 70’s: whether objective truth could be portrayed through images under an oppressive regime?

Our Rating: 8.0
IMDb Ratings: 8.0
Genre: Comedy | Drama | Romance
CastJerzy Stuhr, Malgorzata Zabkowska, Ewa Pokas
Country: Poland
Language: Polish
Runtime: 117 min
Color: Color

The script from Jerzy Stuhr and Kieslowski in “Camera Buff” wonders about one’s interpretation of truth through images, which results in adverse consequences so as to ruin good people’s lives. Jerzy Stuhr plays the protagonist Filip Mosz, a factory worker who buys an 8mm movie camera to film his newborn baby. It’s a novelty item for a simple family man like Filip, who has bought the camera spending his two month earnings. The instrument he bought to document his private life soon makes him sit in front of factory chief (also head of local communist party), who asks Filip to cover the upcoming jubilee celebration. After the birth of little daughter, Filip says to his wife Irka (Malgorzata Zabkowska) that he is now fully content with his life. But, as he runs among people in jubilee celebration, embracing this newfound passion, his wife’s face shows disapproving expressions. Later, the Chief after watching Filip’s coverage recommends to travel and shown it in an amateur film festival. The recognition makes the simple family man and factory worker to start a film club in an underground basement. He is now fully engaged with making short documentaries (filming the pavement workers from his drab apartment building). Irka wonders why he can’t remain content by spending time with family rather than chase around harsh reality of workers through camera.
Filip capturing the mundane happenings in the neighborhood as his exasperated wife Irka stands behind
Filip capturing the mundane happenings in the neighborhood as his exasperated wife Irka stands behind
When Filip boards the train to go to the film festival, she shouts ‘don’t win’. To her misfortune, he wins and now he is thoroughly taken in by the power of images. This pursuit and passion is inherently ironic: he wants to vividly capture others’ everyday life, while he sacrifices his own in doing so. Apart from the alienation from family, Filip is confounded by whether his perception of images could be fully understood by others for what it is. He follows around an old, dwarf factory worker with camera to document his daily life. Although Filip empathetically and truthfully films the old man’s life, trouble arises in different forms, which eventually leads to ruination of some good men (the chief feels Filip is exploiting and demeaning the old dwarf). He learns that the image is so powerful that the different individuals ‘interpret’ truth in different ways. At one moment of epiphany (towards the end), Filip ruins the film roll, which documented bricklayers, acknowledging how truth could be twisted under authoritarian regime. The film ends up with Filip turning the camera upon himself, recalling his past and life and expressing the thoughts. Two years after the making of “Camera Buff”, Kieslowski decided that fiction gave more artistic freedom and the space to portray everyday life in a more truthful manner. He stopped projecting the camera on factory workers and social decay of community to focus only on individuality and ‘private space’.  
Prominent Polish film-maker Krzysztof Zanussi briefly appears as himself who encourages Filip to continue his film-making endeavor. Filip is seen attending the screening of Polish classic Camouflage
Prominent Polish film-maker Krzysztof Zanussi briefly appears as himself who encourages Filip to continue his film-making endeavor. Filip is seen attending the screening of Polish classic Camouflage
Both Jerzy Stuhr and Kieslowski did lot of damage to their familial relationships in their pursuit of passion. The company chief’s statements of what could be shown and what couldn’t, remains as a stand-in for higher authorities Kieslowski could have faced in his formative years as a film-maker, when creative expression was heavily censored. The nature of Filip – an amateur film-maker – also has enough autobiographical elements, especially when Filip is perplexed by the vast impact his visuals are creating. Like the 70’s Kieslowski, Filip was less of an artist, living inside a void with no idea about what kind of effect his films would create among public and family. There’s also ample reflection on how communist state suppresses the individual, intervening on every forms of a person’s life. The autobiographical factors also lend enough space for some universal thoughts and the director handles much of it with a sensitivity and sense of humor. For example, there’s the bleak sequence when Filip’s wife leaves him packing all the bags. When she walks away from the bathroom door, Filip comically makes a framing hand gesture (to imagine how that would look as a visual) and immediately puts down his hand, as she turns back. Kieslowski showcases the beauty of image becoming a substitute for memory through the ‘hearse driver’ – Piotrek’s—episode. Although, the subject of passion transforming into a conflict for leading family life isn’t dealt in a profound manner, it could still resonate with those individuals who have had arguments with loved ones to make them understand the unwavering passion. Kieslowski’s aesthetic sense in this film is flawless (a groups of workers in gas masks is one of the striking imagery), even though it lacks the elaborate visual details, found in his later eponymous works.

“Camera Buff” aka “Amator” (108 minutes) is one of Kieslowski’s earlier, good personal pieces of film-making, reflecting (metaphorically & literally) his own identity crisis and inner struggles. The film marvelously ruminates upon the complexities of visuals and the responsibilities it drags alongside.  

About Author - 

Arun Kumar is an ardent cinephile, who finds solace by exploring and learning from the unique works of the cinematic art. He believes in the shared-dream experience of cinema and tries to share those thoughts in the best possible way. He blogs at Passion for Movies and 'Creofire'.

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A Sequence from Camera Buff (1979) (YouTube)

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