Camera Buff

English Title: Camera Buff

Original Title: Amator

Country of Origin: Poland

Studio: Film Polski, Zespól Filmowy “Tor”

Director: Krzysztof Kieślowski

Producer(s): Wielislawa Piotrowska

Screenplay: Krzysztof Kieślowski, Jerzy Stuhr

Cinematographer: Jacek Petrycki

Editor: Halina Nawrocka

Runtime: 117 minutes

Genre: Drama/Art Cinema

Language: Polish

Starring/Cast: Jerzy Stuhr, Malgorzata Zabkowska, Ewa Pokas, Stefan Czyzewski

Year: 1979

Volume: East European


Filip, a buyer for a state run factory in a small Polish town, buys an 8mm movie camera to film his newborn daughter. As the company is soon to celebrate its silver jubilee, he is funded by the local Party boss to make a documentary and set up a film club, after which he becomes obsessed with his new hobby, much to his wife’s displeasure. When the celebratory film is entered into a competition and wins third prize, Filip begins to broaden his horizons regarding the potential uses of film; and, as he is commissioned to make more films and his reputation starts to attract the attentions of important Polish directors and TV producers, tensions start to build in his personal life. Facing the possibility of marital breakdown and with the Party boss attempting to censor his movies, Filip begins to question the moral implications of turning the camera on those around him. 


Kieślowski's Amator/Camera Buff represented an artistic shift in the director’s career as he moved away from documentary cinema and into the realm of feature film-making. Although he had already directed Blizna/The Scar (1976), it was from this point on that he fully embraced feature film-making, and it was successful in Poland and abroad, going on to win the Golden Prize at the 1979 Moscow Film Festival and the Chicago Film Festival, even though many critics claimed that it was too parochial to gain an international following (a criticism that dogged numerous early Kieślowski pictures).


Co-written with Jerzy Stuhr, who over a twenty year period appeared in numerous Kieślowski works, Camera Buff is a slyly satirical and moral look at one man’s growing obsession for film-making. Shot in a naturalistic, documentary fashion, the narrative portrays one year in which Filip, a bumbling and sensitive everyman, is transformed into a minor celebrity when the amateur films he makes become lauded by his fellow workers, neighbours and film enthusiasts. The film contains a variety of themes, all seen through the prism of Filip’s changing circumstances: issues surrounding freedom of expression, self sacrifice, censorship, authorship and personal responsibility all revolve around a self reflexive study of what it is to be a film-maker, and the implications inherent in filming others.


Whilst not being directly autobiographical, elements from Kieślowski's own life, and his thoughts on film-making and social responsibility, are filtered through Filip’s experiences. The inclusion of Filip studying the history of cinema is a clear indication of this, and the appropriation of real life influences is heightened by the inclusion of director Krzysztof Zanussi playing himself. Zanussi was a professor at the Łódź Film School at the time Kieślowski studied there, and they became great friends as well as work colleagues. The seamless blending of a scene from Zanussi's Barwy Ochronne/Camouflage (1977) into Camera Buff further highlights issues surrounding authorship and film-making.


Two distinct characters in Filip’s life open up the themes of the film: his wife, Irka, and the local Party director, who both attempt to censor the protagonist in their own ways. As he becomes consumed by film-making and the film club Irka becomes disheartened and badgers him to give it all up. She forbids him from filming their daughter naked, and at one point calls for him not to win the amateur film festival with his first documentary. Far from being a stereotypical disgruntled wife, Irka is in fact a complex character, and she and Filip’s disintegrating marriage is sensitively, unsentimentally portrayed as moments of tenderness and love compound Filip’s turmoil when he tries to reconcile his wife’s unhappiness with his own growing good fortune.


The Party director’s interference with and criticism of Filip’s work, including censoring shots deemed unflattering or superfluous – which in contrast are exactly the scenes that attract the attentions of the festival jury and TV producers – awaken the moral and philosophical quandaries with which he subsequently struggles. Naturalistic scenes of pigeons feeding, a crippled factory worker’s humdrum existence and snippets of everyday life under a communist regime present problems in different ways for both the Party boss and for Filip. The internal struggle he faces has been mirrored by countless real film-makers from all cultures. On the one hand he wishes to present a ‘truthful’ account of life as he witnesses it, but also has to contend with the fact that he receives support and funding from the regime that wishes to suppress such visions. Filip comes to question his own authorship of the films due to this conflict, and grapples with the idea that he has a much greater responsibility to those he films than he first realized. When one revelatory exposé on the misappropriation of funds is broadcast on national TV, the consequences for those around him are more destructive than he thought possible, resulting in job losses and the suspension of building on a new nursery. The now socially committed film-maker is crushed at the thought that he has brought this on his colleagues and neighbours, and in an act of self censorship he exposes another potentially damaging film to sunlight and turns the camera on himself, enlightened now to the responsibilities and dilemmas that face documentary film-makers in particular. Far from being the passive observer he began as, he ultimately recognizes that his actions in the simple art of recording what he sees around him implicate him in any number of the consequences that arise from doing so. It is a fitting end to the film, and compares with Kieślowski's own feelings as his career progressed: the fictional films that followed Camera Buff becoming his preferred medium in which to reflect upon his pre-occupations in real life.

Author of this review: Neil Mitchell