Camera Buff: reckoning with reality – Mikołaj Jazdon Cultural critic Mikołaj Jazdon traces the tangled relationship between the film director Krzysztof Kieślowski and the amateur film movement

Camera Buff: reckoning with reality – Mikołaj Jazdon

Early in the 1990’s, a kind of tradition was established at the “AWA” Amateur Film Club in Poznań. Those wishing to join the club were shown Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Camera Buff during their first meeting.  The screenings organizers’ were long-time, active amateur filmmakers who saw the film as a kind of lecture about amateur film, about its creators – i.e. themselves – and about the significance and status which amateur filmmaking had enjoyed in Poland since the 1970’s.  Kieślowski’s film was also noteworthy because the director himself commanded respect amongst amateurs, he had always taken a special interest in amateur film.  Often during the 1970’s and 80’s, he adjudicated in competitions of amateur films, which was undoubtedly one of the reasons that led him to make Camera Buff in 1979.

Kieślowski’s film can be analyzed from multiple viewpoints: as a portrait of an amateur Polish filmmaker in the People’s Republic, or as a metaphor of the fate of many professional directors in Poland, and some have identified within it, clear autobiographical references to Kieślowski’s life. While in the broadest sense it can been seen to portray the predicament of Poles between two key moments in their post-war history: the tragic events that came with the workers’ protests in Radom and Ursus in 1976, and the rise of ‘Solidarity’ in August of 1980.

When Camera Buff was released in cinemas, it was most often read as the latter.  The film was thought of as one of the key examples of the ‘cinema of moral anxiety’, which in turn proved one of the most important currents in Polish film history.

I would like to look at Camera Buff primarily as the filmed portrait of an amateur filmmaker who developed his passion in a totalitarian state.  Filip Mosz, the hero of Camera Buff, buys a camera just before his first child is born.  He wants to use it to document his daughter’s childhood; young parents today purchase video cameras for the same reason.  However, the similarities end there.  Today’s amateur filmmakers have digital cameras that let them shoot, at no great cost, many hours of footage -with sound- that is ready for playback immediately after it is recorded.  Without much more effort they can edit films on their home computers and thus find themselves only one step away from creating films that are no longer ‘home movies’, films they can easily post on the Internet.  In 1970’s Poland, amateur filmmakers like Mosz, when choosing to work independently, could only hope to produce a series of black and white silent shots a few minutes long, on low-quality 8 millimeter stock, using spring-wound cameras like the Quartz that the protagonist of Camera Buff buys.  If Mosz had limited himself to producing ‘home movies’, he would, at most, have created a family collection of moving pictures.  Equipment, film and processing costs were insurmountable for anyone who, while employed by a state enterprise, would wish to make film at home.  Amateur film clubs were the only opportunity for creative development.  Filip Mosz, a supply worker in a state-owned production plant, chose to join the AFC operating within his factory.  In Camera Buff Kieślowski showed how these clubs were created and operated.  Mosz’s debut film is a documentary about the factory’s anniversary celebrations, and movies of this kind constituted the core output of clubs attached to factories.  Apart from documenting special occasions, club members recorded inventions and innovations at their factories, made instructional films and films about local investments.  Nothing unusual – the sponsors, meaning the factories, covered production costs and so required the clubs to produce films that served the interests of the enterprise. 

Kieślowski represented the links that existed between sponsoring enterprises and filmmakers through the relationship between Filip Mosz and his manager.  The factory manager initially provides the stock the filmmaker needs to make the anniversary reportage.  He then provides the space required for club activities, purchases a 16 mm camera and editing equipment, pays the club’s dues for the AFC federation, enters the club’s films in festivals, and so on.  On the other hand he censors the films that are made and stipulates this condition: before being produced, all scripts must first gain his approval.  These two core conditions – i.e. a state ‘sponsor’ and censorship – was the environment of both professional and non-professional filmmakers.

There is also a similarity with Camera Buff’s depiction of the manner in which filmmakers fought these limitations.  Following the screening of Anniversary Mosz and the factory manager argue about what must be removed from the film.  In this scene we see a kind of ‘bargaining’ between producer and manager, which is analogous to professional filmmakers’ debates with real censors.  While shooting The Worker, his next film, Mosz has another discussion with the factory manager during which he presents a general outline of his new film about a long-time employee of the plant. He neglects to mention that his intended subject is a dwarf. As you can easily imagine, this choice of protagonist is crucial and denotes a fundamental change in the film’s intended meaning in relation to that suggested by the initial outline.  Although the factory manager’s censorship proves successful in part: Mosz is able to complete the film but is then prevented from entering it in festivals.  One could cite numerous examples of professionals who resorted to similar ruses, just like the amateurs, many wrote treatments and screenplays that would gain the necessary acceptance of censors to send a film into production.  They also encountered the same restrictions, if in the opinion of the censors, the finished work went beyond what was acceptable.

In the world of enthusiastic filmmakers depicted by Kieślowski in Camera Buff, and while Edward Gierek ruled Poland, artistic creativity and politics intertwined.  Practically all films approved for release in the Polish People’s Republic were analyzed for their political content – both overt and implied.  Kieślowski essentially shows that film – even amateur film – was considered very important in Poland during the 1970’s, especially by the ruling authorities who watched and analyzed all film destined for public screening.

Filip Mosz ultimately learns how much power an amateur filmmaker has, power he cannot always completely control.  He makes a film  which reveals that funds allocated for the renovation of parts of the town, were not used as intended.  The film is shown on local television and Mosz’s friend loses his job as a result.  Amateurs or professionals, those who make critical documentaries or that reveal what was hidden, are responsible for the consequences of their public presentation. When Mosz realizes that the screening of his next film might bring results contrary to his intentions as an author, he decides to destroy the film.

In his film Kieślowski shows the fascination that amateur filmmakers had for social interest documentaries; Mosz does not make short features, he shoots documentaries instead, his artistic motto seems to be ‘I film what is’.  The similarities between the fortunes of amateurs and professionals that I underline, also occur in the choice of subject matter.  Filip Mosz’s The Worker explores the same subject as Bohdan Kosiński’s professional documentary The Watch (1977), while his amateur The Pavement touches upon the same problems that Kieślowski presented in The Factory (1970). Camera Buff thus revealed one of the main features of amateur film, namely, its constant interchange with the works of professionals.  Reviews from amateur film festivals of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s constantly reiterate the similarity between competition entries and the works of professional filmmakers, especially those made in the Polish Film School or documentaries of the ‘Black Series’. The Black Series is a famous collection of short documentaries made between 1955 and 1957, which describe real, pathological phenomena of those times -hooliganism, alcoholism, prostitution, etc. The films survived the Stalinist regimes censorship, which essentially falsified reality.  So there is nothing strange in Mosz’s film sharing themes with those of young Polish documentary filmmakers, who had been boldly seeking to reveal the truth about 1970’s Poland since the beginning of the decade.  Much like Tomasz Zygadło, Bohdan Kosiński, Marcel Łoziński, Paweł Kędzierski or Krzysztof Kieślowski, Filip Mosz describes the world around him using metaphors to diagnose that reality broadly and profoundly, while avoiding the censors’ merciless scissors.

Filip’s film The Pavement which shows a pavement constantly being excavated because of repeated failings in the underground system, is not only a documentary made by an amateur from the window of his apartment, but it also contains accurate observations about the entire Polish economy at that time.  Similarly, his documentary about the dwarf, a long-time employee of Filip’s plant, is not solely a portrait of an interesting individual, but it’s also a film that reveals the truth about the status of workers in a state that calls itself socialist.  Mosz’s films undoubtedly have their analogues among the works of real amateur filmmakers of that time, as they do among the works of professionals.  With the latter they share the manner in which issues are framed and in their form -short, black and white films- which gave them the best chance of being screened at festivals.  In recalling his work on Camera Buff, Kieślowski admitted that his hero makes films that he himself wanted to make but for various reasons failed to.

Filip Mosz is a fictional character, but one pieced together from the biographies of real people.  While preparing for the film, Kieślowski interviewed many amateur filmmakers, perhaps most significantly Franciszek Dzida, a resident of Chybie and founder of the “Klaps” film club.  It was at this club that Kieślowski organized a preview screening of Camera Buff on September 29, 1979.  A lesser-known filmmaker whose story Kieślowski drew upon for Camera Buff is Ryszard Tomaszewski, a member of the amateur film club affiliated with the Wielkopolska Fabryka Maszyn [“WIE-PO-FA-MA” Machine Factory] in Poznań. Camera Buff is clearly quasi-documentary, however this is not due entirely to Kieślowski’s detailed factual research, it’s as much for the film’s style. It closely resembles that of British director Ken Loach, whose productions Kieślowski particularly admired. The film’s documentary realism also derives from the cinematography of Jacek Petrycki (whose credits as director of photography appears on many documentary films) and the natural interior and outdoor settings, but above all from  appearances by well-known people; like Krzysztof Zanussi, Andrzej Jurga and Tadeusz Sobolewski.  Zanussi in particular was a friend of the amateur filmmaking movement, having published the book Discussions About Amateur Film which contained articles that appeared in Fotografia monthly during the 1960’s and 70’s.  He was especially important to amateur filmmakers, because at the beginning of his creative work he himself had produced films at an AFC affiliated with the steelworks in Nowa Huta.

A number of secondary and tertiary roles in Camera Buff were also played by their real equivalents.  The factory watchman was played by an actual factory guard – Marian Osuch who had appeared in Kieślowski’s documentary From the Viewpoint of a Night Watchman.  In Filip Mosz’s film The Worker, the protagonist shares his thoughts as if in a real documentary.  This accumulation of real people and actual or probable events gives Camera Buff a documentary style, but more importantly renders it similar to an amateur film in which the author – like Filip Mosz – has recorded what he is most familiar with, a recognizable reality and people from his immediate environment.  Professional documentary filmmakers of the 1970’s sought out subjects and protagonists throughout Poland; amateurs found them in their hometowns, and the factories where they worked.  A feature film director casts professional actors while an amateur selects friends and colleagues, who do not act so much, as simply are.

Also, and maybe foremost, Camera Buff is about self-discovery.  In buying a camera to record the history of the child he is expecting, Filip Mosz initiates a chain of events that will alter his life, transform his peaceful and stable existence into an engaging adventure with a dramatic finale.  In the film’s last scene, Mosz points the camera at himself, thus returning in some sense to the beginning.  He is once again at home with his camera, which at the start serves to record what is most intimate, what is closest.  This story is familiar to the many amateurs for whom making films did not prove, nor was ever designed to be, a path towards the filmmaking profession,. For them it was a voyage towards self-knowledge, a test of themselves, a way to satisfy some ambition, an adventure, a method of discovering the truth about the world or simply of developing their own receptiveness.