Camera Buff (1979)

Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski

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“What are you filming?” “Anything that moves.”

A mild-mannered new father finds his true calling in the form of a film camera in Camera Buff.  Filip’s sudden passion is made to seem both enchanted and selfish, and his newfound joy brings great catharsis to some while alienating others.

Filip’s wife, Irka, is pregnant when we first meet him.  She goes into labor, he carries her to the hospital, and then we stay with Flip while he receives congratulatory toasts as all the real work happens offscreen.  Soon enough he meets his new child, and Filip buys a camera, too expensive for his wife’s taste, to document her early days.

An admitted novice behind the camera, Filip learns by jumping in and recording everything.  Irka dissuades him from filming their daughter while she’s naked, but others will only fan the flames, encouraging him to document anything and everything.  To most people within this story, Filip’s camera is a blessing and a novelty.

When his boss learns he has a camera, he enlists him in making a few short films which turn out well enough to be entered into film festivals.  From there Filip is encouraged to make films that are less about the rigid, corporate world and more about life.  Filip’s career then starts to kick off due to the brief mentorships of people like film critic Andrzej Jurga and director Krzysztof Zanussi, playing themselves in the film.

As Filip’s career takes flight, his relationship with Irka begins to crumble.  We will occasionally see him return to her, and every time it feels like a soldier returning home on a brief leave from battle.  He only sticks around for a short time before jumping right back out into his new world.

It’s very easy to be as taken with Filip’s journey as he is.  His passion is unbridled, enthusiastic and sincere.  He becomes obsessed with his camera and seeing the world in a new way.  Suddenly everything gathers a beauty it didn’t have before, just by being observed.  Filip finds expression in the mundane, and in slice of life stories he captures and conjures compelling narratives which bring him validation from others.

There is one neighbor, Piotrek, whom he records early on in a very ordinary moment in time.  In the recording Filip’s camera catches Piotrek’s mother, and when she passes away, all Piotrek wants is to re-watch the piece of film.  He tells Filip that he has done something beautiful, preserving something which otherwise would disappear in time.

Another man, a dwarf whose story Filip documents for a local television program, says something similar.  He is so overwhelmed by what Filip has done, in fact, that he walks out in the middle of the screening to compose himself.

So there are people like this, who are honored by Filip’s work, and there are others who encourage his filmmaking from the sideline.  These are people like Jurga and Zanussi who recognize the value of his work from an intellectual perspective.  They do not feel the same rush of feelings as those depicted in Filip’s films, but they can appreciate his work for what it represents.  Their admiration also feels somewhat self-congratulatory, as any recognition of Filip’s virtue is really a validation of their own tastes.

These are the people who love film but whose love feels a bit too self-involved.  These are also the people whom Filip wants to impress as time goes on, the ones whose opinions he begins to value more than Irka’s.

So Irka is the one left at home to care for their newborn while Filip is off having his great adventures.  Her’s is the story often ignored in stories that glorify the rags to riches journey, the joy of passion and hard work.  She is the one who must deal with the real world while Filip is increasingly surrounded by intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals who only seem to be there to inflate his ego in the hope that he can offer something to them in time.  To those people Filip is an investment that may or may not pay off in time. To Irka he is her husband, but whether or not he knows it, that is no longer enough.

Irka’s side of the story is the one chronicled in Damien Chazelle’s movies, like Whiplash and, from what I gather, the upcoming First Man.  These are stories about passion that has more to do with obsession, and his stories focus on the dark side of such obsession, what you have to give up to achieve the one thing you’ve always set your sights on.

Those movies, and this one too, remind me of what was a startlingly poignant line from the Disney movie Cool Runnings, “a gold medal is a wonderful thing. But if you’re not enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it.”

In fights between Irka and Filip, they get quickly to the heart of the issue.  Filip argues that his filmmaking passion is his way of really living his life.  It’s his way of doing more than just surviving.  Irka will say that what she wants is what they had, a quiet marriage and their daughter.  It’s her form of tranquility, and now it’s not enough for her husband.

I think it’s easy to find both logic and fault in each side of the debate, and that’s what makes it compelling.  I’m inclined to be as enamored with Filip’s journey as he is, considering I love movies, cameras and everything that goes with them.  And yet, at the end of the day, isn’t family what matters most?  At least family and everything pertaining to it.

It’s beautiful to strive for something, but at what cost?  Isn’t there a healthy balance somewhere in the middle?  Filip’s journey is an exciting one, partially because his world at the beginning of the story is a striking bleak one.  Even as his marriage is meant to be stable enough, there’s a certain unattractive quality to the way he and Irka live.  Maybe it’s just the time and place, 40 years ago in an Eastern European nation that is smothered in (I believe) communism and the post World War II destruction.  From my perspective, as a [takes deep, strained breath] millennial in 2018 and in California no less, Filip’s and Irka’s world is rather off-putting.  This makes his effort to look deeper, to find meaning within this world, feel quite understandable.  If I were in his situation I would do the same.

So this all works to make us empathize and root for him, but we must nonetheless reckon with the selfishness of his behavior.  He made a commitment, to his wife and to his daughter, and his behavior takes him away from this agreement.

There will be other consequences to Filip’s journey as time goes on.  His obsession, in his eyes, is quite simple and harmless.  We’ve already seen the harm it brings his family, and soon it will cause others to lose their jobs.

In a conversation with his boss following the realization that a film he made, about his small town just the way it is, revealed certain problems that got other well-meaning people fired, he says, “I just showed things as they are, deliberately,” to which his boss responds, “if you feel that you’re right you have to proceed, you’ll never know who’ll profit.”

At the end of the film, Filip is something like Charles Foster Kane on his deathbed, uttering “rosebud” and thinking of what once was.  He has seemingly turned his back on filmmaking, blaming the tool rather than his own hand, and he turns the camera on himself, for the first time, handling it like it’s a gun.

Up Next: The Train (1964), Vegas Vacation (1997), The Motel (2005)

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