Film Review: Blood BrotherAn incisive and compassionate documentary that’s as much a transformative experience for audiences as it was for the filmmakers.
Addressing the heartrending issue of children living with HIV and AIDS is enormously complex, but Blood Brother accomplishes the challenge with sufficient grace and empathy to give hope to anyone concerned with this global affliction. Indeed, Steve Hoover’s film is among those rare, independently produced documentaries that could really go the distance in theatrical and ancillary with dedicated distributor support.
When Pittsburgh resident Rocky Braat first traveled to India more than five years ago, he was hoping to clear his mind, sort out life priorities and perhaps get a new start after a childhood marred by neglect and abuse. In southern Tamil Nadu state he went to a center that serves as an orphanage, refuge, school and care center for women and children living with HIV and AIDS, not really knowing what to expect.
Braat visited the kids at the center near Chennai over the course of a month, but when he continued his sightseeing tour of India, he found he genuinely missed the children and couldn’t forget their plight, so he returned to continue working with them for a few more months before flying back to the U.S. “I didn’t really like kids, to tell the truth” before that time, Rocky comments, but he felt really moved by their suffering. “They gave their hearts to me and I gave my heart to them,” he recalls, and within a year he was back in India assisting at the orphanage and encouraged Hoover, his best friend, to visit.
Not knowing what to expect, Hoover discovered how much the children depended on “Rocky anna” (brother), as they called him, for care, support and encouragement. Rocky had already adjusted to working with HIV-positive patients and had no inhibitions about physical contact or sharing meals with them, which was something that Hoover gradually had to adjust to.
Despite their medical conditions, Hoover finds that the kids are much like any other children—curious, playful and grateful for adults’ attention, since many don’t have parents of their own. Dependent on a mix of medications for their survival, these children are well aware that without the care they receive, they might not survive.
Hoover’s film plays out in so many rich, unexpected and resonant ways that the shift in worldview that both he and Rocky experience while helping to care for these kids is clearly evidenced. Even when some of them die of their afflictions, Rocky observes that “I have to accept the fact that this is what I signed up for.” Shooting the documentary becomes a transformative experience for Hoover as well, but he still finds it hard to elicit Rocky’s personal feelings about his situation, particularly regarding Nimmi, a local woman he’s considering marrying.
Hoover, a professional videographer, is constantly forced to improvise while shooting in frequently changeable situations, with handheld cameras and available light often the only options. Although the resulting footage isn’t always of the highest quality, with practically unlimited access to Rocky and the orphanage kids, he’s able to shape a narrative that’s surprisingly and consistently compelling.
Much as Born into Brothels provided perspective on another population of Indian kids dealing with seemingly insurmountable problems, Blood Brother evokes the inspiration and dedication required to nurture children who might otherwise have no other hope. In return, Rocky and his co-workers experience so much love and devotion that their sacrifices become completely relatable.