April 26, 2011
Camera Buff (1979) ****1/2
Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski
Camera Buff (1979)- Wholly personal and devastatingly sad exploration of the responsibilities and sacrifices of an artist. ****1/2 out of 5
Communism does not lend itself well to the artist who first desires freedom and second desires success. At the same time, art and family don't co-mingle without a great deal of effort on the part of everyone involved. Camera Buff, a deeply personal early film from the great Polish auteur Kryzystof Kieslowski, shows all too clearly that hope and success require sacrifice, especially in a country at a time when tranquility alone is all most people can hope for.
Jerzy Stuhr plays Filip Mosz, a local government employee in a small Polish town near Krakow who saves two months of his salary in order to buy a handheld camera to film the life of his newborn baby daughter. At first, the camera brings joy to everyone in Filip's life, considering that it's a harmless novelty. Things begin to change, however, when Filip is asked to document a government sponsored event that the town is hosting.
Filip starts to go off script by filming subjects that fascinate him like workers being paid, pigeons eating on windowsills and sidewalks being paved in order to make the town's facade impressive to the visitors. Filip's keen eye for observation and talent behind the camera captures the attention of a film promoter who enters the film in a local festival. After Filip receives third place and a substantial monetary prize, he's encouraged to make more films. His next project centers around a midget who has been a loyal worker for the government for twenty-five years, never once missing a single day. When he shares his idea, he's accused of intending to mock the handicapped man. Eventually, the film is made, and it's so tastefully done that the man at the center of the film becomes overwhelmed with emotion at the beauty of Filip's labors.
The short movie is shown on Polish television, and Filip is even offered a job with the station to make more films. His third movie focuses on how the government only superficially improved the facade of his town, but under closer examination, it's clear that nothing really changed, which is exemplified by a dilapidated brick yard that stands behind a freshly painted building. Clearly, this has the potential to embarrass and hurt some people that Filip considers close friends. Beyond that, he learns that the situation isn't as black and white as it seems.
Camera Buff is not only a story about a filmmaker. It's also the story of a husband and father who finds his passion in life the same day his daughter is born, and his passion is not his daughter. Malgorzata Zabkowska plays Filip's wife Irka, who quickly sees that her husband's skill behind the camera is ultimately going to consume him. She wants nothing more than for Filip to stay the poor, loving man that she married, especially now that they have a daughter. In Communist Poland, the idea of fulfillment and advancement through the arts is about as foreign an idea as is possible. Sure, Irka could have been more supportive of her husband's new career, but Filip definitely picked a bad time in his marriage to push his wife and his daughter aside to voluntarily embrace completely different responsibilities.
Looking at Kieslowski's Internet Movie Database page on imdb.com, it's obvious that Camera Buff is autobiographical. Kieslowski started by making short documentaries for Polish television before hitting it big with this very film. He clearly knows the allure and exhilaration that goes along with doing something he was clearly born to do. Kieslowski shows a great deal of sympathy for Filip, though he doesn't let Filip off the hook at the end. The pathos that runs throughout Camera Buff gives the film a palpable sense of sad sincerity which can't be denied.
Most of the film is shot in 16 millimeter, similar to the camera that the station purchases for Filip. There's a verite style that at the time could only have come from someone with a documentary background. Yet, with so many neo-realistic films shot today, Camera Buff doesn't always stay true to its own identity. The first half has a bit of an improvised feel, while the second half is almost meticulously choreographed. There are too many stagy, scripted moments that clutter the tone of the film as it progresses. Of course, this could have been deliberate if Kieslowski was intending to show more polished filmmaking as Filip started coming into his own behind the camera. Still, the tonal shift does diminish the film's overall success slightly.
Camera Buff is one of the most heartbreaking and unapologetic explorations on the struggles of the artist at once trying to exist in this world while simultaneously desiring to transcend it. The artist must be honest with himself and those around him if he's going to be able to maintain any form of balance in his life. Either relationships are going to suffer or the art is going to suffer. Most people would claim that relationships are easily most important. When someone has the artistic gifts that Filip has, the answer isn't as easy as it seems.