Videographer and first-time filmmaker Steve Hoover was puzzled and perplexed when Rocky Braat, his best friend from art school in Pittsburgh, took a trip to India and subsequently decided to leave Pittsburgh for good in order to return to India and continue working at a rural orphanage for HIV-positive children and abandoned women. Apparently, this was not a side of Braat that Hoover had seen before. So he decided to accompany Braat to India to see if he could better understand his friend's unexpected new direction. Blood Brother was the highly engaging, well-done film that came of that trip, a film that received both the Grand Jury and Audience awards at Sundance last year.
The film sets up Braat's unsettled antecedents – a checkered family history that included childhood abuse and neglect – and then takes us to the South Indian orphanage where Braat has found the purpose, authenticity, and life fulfillment that he lacked in Pittsburgh, by living with and caring for the seriously ill kids there. Braat – the kids call him Rocky Anna (Rocky Brother) – is the always-fun, big-hearted camp counselor that every kid has ever loved and couldn't get enough of. Hoover is taken aback by the primitive conditions that Rocky lives in, by choice, near the orphanage – without electricity or plumbing – and the fact that he's been able to overcome any skittishness about working in an environment where he's in constant contact with HIV/AIDS.
We, the viewers, have our heartstrings tugged as we witness Rocky Anna's unflagging devotion to these kids with their heartbreaking backstories, time-limited futures, and day-to-day lives which can, and often do, suddenly devolve into life-threatening medical emergencies or worse.
Beyond its heartwarming aspects, the film is undeniably most interesting as a psychological, if definitely hagiographic, portrait of the open yet opaque: Braat, as seen through his best friend's lens. The hows of Braat's transformation from a seemingly "ordinary Joe" into a selfless missionary-type remains, well, still opaque, much as we're taken aback when we learn that he's about to marry an Indian woman from the village whom he barely knows and who doesn't seem to speak much English.
Over the predominant chorus of unqualified hosannas, some in the press have criticized Blood Brother for focusing exclusively and too narrowly on Braat, when the camera should have been pulled back far enough to encompass the cultural or political context for the AIDS epidemic in India or the orphanage itself within its environs. But mostly, we're sufficiently warmed by the obvious deep affection and trust that flows between Rocky Anna and his kids, however it came to be.
Austin Film Society screens Blood Brother as part of its Doc Nights series on Tuesday, April 8, 7:30pm, at AFS at the Marchesa (6226 Middle Fiskville). Visit the AFS website (www.austinfilm.org) for complete details and ticket information.
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