Absence Magnified: On Death and the Moving Image in Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Camera Buff"

In Krzysztof Kieslowski's 1979 film, Camera Buff,  Filip, a Polish factory worker, buys a camera for the purpose of filming his newborn daughter. But what begins as a personal endeavor steadily becomes something more when Filip’s employer asks him to film the company’s 25th anniversary jubilee and submit the film to a festival where it wins third prize. Soon, Filip is obsessed with his camera and instead of focusing its lens on his daughter or his wife, he places it on the gray, desolate world around him, producing insightful documentaries for the television news. Kieslowski deftly examines the political power of the moving image and even manages to poke some fun at the high-minded auteurs of the Polish elite. However, Kieslowski is concerned not just with the political and social ramifications of film but with its personal meaning in our everyday lives, as evidenced by one scene in particular.

In the early days of Filip’s amateur film making, he captures a poignant moment for his friend Piotrek. He briefly films Piotrek driving up to the apartment building where he lives, exiting his vehicle, and smiling up at his mother who leans out of a window. This moment will become even more important when Piotrek’s mother dies. After her funeral, in his time of intense grief, Piotrek asks to watch the film.


He sits in a darkened room with Filip and other friends and looks at the screen as that moment in time comes back to life. He watches himself drive up to the apartment building and smile at his mother.





She appears at the window, her face materializing out of the darkness; she is a beautiful blur, resurrected for only seconds. 





Piotrek asks to keep the film. Then, reflects on the meaning of the moving image. He most likely has many photographs of his mother, but this is the only film he will ever have of her.



 




All of this reminds me of my own father and the one video I have of him. Growing up poor, we never owned a movie camera and usually took photographs on disposable cameras. However, footage does exist of my father from around 1990 and captures him at a birthday party held for me at my grandmother’s house.  

After my father’s death, when I still had a VHS player, I would watch the video and cry. It was bittersweet to see him not as a motionless photographic image but as a live, kinetic, vibrant human being. I haven’t seen the film in years and I still don’t know what to make of it. 

In the years since his death in 2006, the world has drastically changed. Now, digital cameras are ubiquitous and most people have numerous pictures and videos of their loved ones. Do I wish I had more? I don’t know. He is gone and nothing can bring him back, not even the camera. 

I don't want a film, I want him. Film is neither substitute nor replacement, it is artifact, something we salvage from the ruins. It is not the dead, it is not the person we ache for, but it is a connection to them, a moment of almost holding what is lost forever, and maybe that’s all we can hope for.

As Piotrek watched his mother on screen, I was left with the sense of absence magnified, of her presence on film as an amplification of her absence in the room. The artifacts, the ruins, we are left with rarely comfort or soothe me, they are only reminders of what is missing.