Long before the acclaimed and influential Three Colours Trilogy, Polish master Krzystof Kieslowski made his first real stir with the intriguing Camera Buff (Amator) (1979); a still relevant social tale with political implications, it focuses on an impoverished family’s disintegration from the most innocuous beginnings imaginable.
Expectant father Filip (Jerzy Stuhr) decides to invest in a small video camera to document the early months of his child’s life; his wife Irka (Malgorzata Zabkowska) is surprised by his exorbitant, last-minute purchase as they’re not exactly well endowed financially, entrenched in the grim projects-like suburban congestion of tiny Polish town Wielice; occupied with thoughts of her impending motherhood however, she shrugs it off – and besides, all Filip’s workmates at his factory are highly impressed and jealous of his acquisition.
Word of the camera’s existence gets around and Filip’s superiors – in particular the company’s Director (Stefan Czyzewski) – want to utilise it to document their upcoming Jubilee celebrations. And so the trouble begins for Filip on two fronts: this undertaking, a seemingly innocent solo venture, becomes the starting point for a more consuming interest in amateur filmmaking after the company enters his work in a festival, thus stirring the revolt of Irka; over the course of a few short months, she begins to lose her husband to his new obsession, causing fractures to form in their seemingly perfect marriage.
More ominous are the subtle editorial alterations imposed by the Director who forces Filip to make adjustments, beneficial to the company’s outlook, in his finished film; bribing Filip with the purchase of a more expensive camera and offering workers as potential subjects, a form of subtle manipulation is established. The costs begin to amount, taking their distressing toll on Filip’s domestic bliss, so tenderly and convincingly established by Kieslowski in the early scenes between the demonstrative and joyful husband and wife.
A revelatory film about Poland of this era, Camera Buff shows the remarkable range of its director’s talents; firstly, his humanistic tendencies come to the fore; merging the wide-eyed wonder of parenthood with an injection of sly dark humour, his distinctly unglamorous depiction of life nonetheless grounds the film in such a believable reality you could almost mistake it for a documentary. The locations are grimy, stripped of colour or interesting detail, reflecting a struggling working-class neighbourhood of overstretched lives in flux; he certainly had me convinced of the possibility of real life taking place beyond virtually every frame of the film.
There are a host little moments to savour in this dark journey through Kieslowski’s Poland: Irka imploring Filip, “be sure you don’t win!” as he boards a train to his first festival screening, the fear of its consequences etched in her eyes; a famous director, a guest of Filip’s amateur film club, elaborating pretentiously on his reasons for making films; and Filip’s friend noting how his devotion is evidence of how “something good has awoken in him” just as his home life is failing into disrepair – torturing him on one hand with the kind of failure he couldn’t have imagined mere months before, just as the exultation of recognition inflates his sense of achievement on the other.
Camera Buff works as subtle social commentary too, showing how Filip stumbles onto unwanted insight and meaning through his expanding obsession with documenting life on film; perhaps there’s a parallel here with Kieslowski’s own experience, it’s not hard to imagine strong autobiographical elements of his own early days, envisioning a cinematic career, rising to the surface.
In dark times, Filip learns a creative decision isn’t always – or perhaps rarely – that: it can be an enforced political one too, with the potential to drastically alter the domestic existences of powerless, marginal people buried beneath the grand delusion of a democracy. This is a fascinating time capsule of a film, well worth hunting down for those only familiar with Kieslowski from his later, more mature, artful masterpieces, Blue, White and Red.