This is my contribution to Quiet Bubble's Kieslowski Blog-a-thon, and my first contribution to any -thon, for that matter.
To call Kieslowski’s Camera Buff simply a film about filmmaking would be to underestimate its elegant nuances and widespread artistic relevance. Without these added layers, the film would still be a solid portrait of a middle-class filmmaker’s evolution, but Kieslowski is far too intelligent and humanistic to ignore the social universality of his story. The film in turn also examines the tension between an artist and a simple craftsman, reality and fiction, objectivity and perspective, and truth and cinema. It is attributable to Kieslowski’s power as a filmmaker that these aspects are organic to the work rather than tacked on or seemingly irrelevant to the story’s themes.
The pudgy, nondescript Jerzy Stohr portrays Filip Mosz, a factory work who buys an 8mm camera to film his newborn daughter’s life. His wife Irka (Malgorzata Zabkowska) warms to the idea, until this simple hobby begins to change into something more. When Filip is eager to film the world around him, his company hires him to make a morale-boosting short about an anniversary party. He learns to use the camera as a new way of seeing, and the prestige of constructing a film based on his own perceptions becomes a consuming passion at the expense of his wife and child. Cinema engulfs Filip’s world, and his amateur but inspired editing wins the film a spot in a local festival. Kieslowski now gets his jabs at film criticism through the eyes of a genuine artist, free of guile or any intention other than presenting his own honest worldview. The festival refuses to give out a first prize due to the lack of a truly worthy film, but to deny homegrown documentaries on “artistic” grounds of quality is to ignore their purpose as record and as expression. Filip still wins third (actually second), which proves to be a double-edged prize. On one hand, validation is all of the fuel the budding filmmaker needs to keep working; however, this strains his marriage to the breaking point. Filip admits that cinema fills a void in his life so deep that even a loving family can’t penetrate it. This is the struggle of all artists: to be truthful to one’s inner being while balancing the expectations and restraints of society.
Luckily, Kieslowski gives each side their due. Irka is far from a harpy or art-hating philistine, and Filip is all enthusiasm and hopeless naivety. He is simply bitten by a bug beyond his control and must follow this new passion to its conclusion. The irony that his alienating film career started with a camera bought for his daughter’s benefit is not lost on the sympathetic but laughing Kieslowski. His later miniseries The Decalogue blows human foibles and incidents to the size of grand drama and in the context of morality and metaphysics; his Three Colors trilogy uses coincidence to shape everyday lives into something that appears designed. Camera Buff deftly does both. Filip is both Everyartist and a victim of fate.
Through Filip’s business connections with his company, Kieslowski pits the artist against the oppressive strictures hovering over a working-class filmmaker. The company subsidizes and wants final approval on his films, but Filip sneaks in subversive elements that amount to social commentary. Recognition through the festival and eventual TV work provides a way out from under the thumb of censorship. Filip learns to be a creator in his medium rather than just a technician to serve the company’s purpose. But even here, Kieslowski (whose hand and mind are present in every frame) hardly lets his protagonist off the hook. It is not enough to simply do what one thinks is right at the moment; one must look into a situation and examine all sides. When Filip decides to film a row of buildings that were only superficially repaired by the company for an upcoming public celebration, he thinks he is exposing a blatant hypocrisy. Instead, his supervisor reveals that the company used the remaining funds reserved for those fixes to make much more needed and important repairs, to a hospital and to a school. Just as Filip has learned to use a camera to create stories and impressions that may not literally exist at that moment, he has shown a hard lesson of perspective. A filmmaker must have a conscience in addition to an eye and a mind. As he grows as an artist, he grows as a person.
But Camera Buff is not merely an allegory for the place of the filmmaker in society, or even simply the story of one such example. As Filip grows excited and awestruck by the possibilities of cinematic creation, so the film becomes more and more in love with cinema itself. Filip’s camera swoops and follows anything that it fancies, and Kieslowski’s is along for the ride. The two frequently become one, as the viewer experiences the pure exhilaration of cinematic sight. And despite the loss of Filip’s wife and child due to his movie obsession, Camera Buff is one of the most optimistic works ever made about the medium. Where films like Peeping Tom and Man Bites Dog use murder, violence, and irony to essentially connect filmmaking with voyeurism and narcissism, Kieslowski’s film celebrates the creativity and personal fulfillment that can blossom from artistic expression. Filip discovers a unique and personal skill that leads to confidence, leadership, and recognition. Two of the most touching scenes in the film show the ability of film to keep memories and moments alive. Days after a coworker’s mother passes away, Filip shows the grieving driver a clip of him showing off for her. The coworker is tearfully grateful. Later, Filip makes a documentary on a near-retirement factory worker who is little. Where the higher-ups think he is exploiting the man, everyone else realizes the warmth and acknowledgment the film will bring. Both moments revel in the life-affirming qualities of cinema without ever seeming cloying or out of place. That Kieslowski can juggle each insightful thread of his film without seeming distant, academic, or convoluted, is a testament to the late Polish writer/director’s mastery of film grammar and, more importantly, his irreplaceable eye for humanity’s complexity.