When all the movie awards start popping up later this year, perhaps someone will recommend a new category: The film most like Seinfeld, the show that was about nothing. Bel Borba Aqui would certainly be among the nominees.
Now, while Seinfeld has the reputation for being about nothing, it is actually about four horrible human beings as they try to interact with people who they think are total idiots. It also is very funny.
Bel Borba Aqui, on the other hand, is actually about nothing. Sure, Bel Borba, the artist, is from Salvador, Brazil, and makes the city his canvas and talks about things that inspire him and some of the choices he's made. But he never once says, "I did this because I was reacting to X," or "I painted that with green simply because I ran out of blue."
I'm of the mind that you need no reason, good or bad, to make art. I am, however, also of the mind that, if a documentary is going to be about something, its makers must endeavor to explain the thing it's putting on screen. In the case of Bel Borba Aqui, these are 94 minutes of our lives and, though the imagery is, at times, strikingly beautiful, they don't add up to much.
For example, Bel Borba says more than once that people don't like him. Why don't people like him? And why isn't there any evidence of that on screen? Maybe the people who work for him don't like him, but they never talk about it. For that matter, almost no one but Bel Borba talks—and listening to artists talk about their own work can be amazing, but mostly it's tedious. Chalk this up to tediousness.
It's clear that the filmmakers, notably directors Burt Sun and André Costantini, really love their subject, and let him do what he does, which is to make art—all the time. But there has to be, if not distance between the filmmakers and their subject, some kind of impetus to move the story forward other than watching a guy make tile sculptures on the sides of buildings.
Last week's Searching for Sugarman is another documentary in which the filmmaker is in love with his subject. But Sugarman has something going for it that Bel Borba Aqui does not: It has a compelling narrative. In Searching for Sugarman, we're looking for a folk singer who may be dead, and who also had a hand, albeit unknowingly, in the protests against South African apartheid.
What do we have in Bel Borba Aqui? Art and a guy making art—it ain't enough.
The film opens with a card explaining that Bel Borba decided he was going to work outside the gallery system and transform his city into a museum. You know what? Cool premise. And then we see Bel Borba doing just that.
But why is he doing that? After watching this movie, I couldn't tell you. Maybe it's in the press notes, but I shouldn't have to read them to find out why. It's not as if they're available to the audience.
Therefore, we're left with the art. Some of it—in fact, most of it—is fascinating. Borba works with many different mediums, is completely assured in his choices and he always seems to be working on something (though, depending on how long the filmmakers followed him, the always-working motif could just be the result of editing).
Again: Why is he doing this work? What does the city think of his work? At one point, Bel Borba says he never gets permission to install his art publicly in the city or to do it on public buildings. That seems hard to believe when he's working on a crane, blocking traffic and is aided by a 10-man crew. But hey, maybe things work much differently in Brazil than in any country to which I've ever traveled.
There are some good things. The art is captivating, the colors throughout the movie are vibrant and the cinematography makes everything feel alive.
If only it had a purpose.
Directed by Burt Sun and André Costantini / With Bel Borba / The Screen / NR / 94 min.