Rocky Braat is the ideal documentary “good guy,” a young American in India caring for orphaned children with HIV and AIDS. Not as a part of any NGO or the Peace Corps or official cause, it seems. He just fell in love with the kids while passing through Chennai as a tourist. Of course there’s a film about him. He’s the kind of guy who wins audience awards for docs — and maybe some jury prizes, too — in spite of the fact that the honors are intended for filmmaking rather than the heroic and heartwarming subjects on screen. People bring their checkbooks to screenings specifically for this sort of thing. But the film he stars in, Blood Brother, does not have one of those common credits at the end of issue films indicating how we can help.
Maybe that’s because the documentary is not about Braat so much as it’s about Steve Hoover, the director of Blood Brother and longtime best friend of its central do-gooder. Hoover is not on screen much, but he narrates in the manner of a first-person filmmaker. Occasionally he even sounds like he’s modeling his voiceover on the present-tense style of Ross McElwee. He starts sentences with “I find myself wondering… ,” which is classic phrasing for this approach. Hoover has made a movie about his own experience attempting to understand why Braat ditched Pittsburgh to live among poor and ailing people on the other side of the world. With no experience or expertise to offer. And for little to no reward or recognition — until this film, that is.
Blood Brother begins with a disorienting sequence. We see a white guy (Braat, not yet identified) give an Indian man and a barely conscious young girl, presumably his daughter, a ride to the hospital. Aside from it being obvious, we only really know that’s their destination because this sole English word is spoken at one point during a chaotic moment in which it seems the girl has died in her father’s arms. All other conversation throughout the sequence, much of it shouting, is in Tamil and not subtitled. Why not? Because Hoover probably did not know the language and was himself confused during the nevertheless devastating events. Right from the start we’re experiencing things as the filmmakers might have.
Later, much of the sequence is shown again at its chronological place in the story, and this time we hear Braat in voiceover explaining what was happening, after the fact. He’s telling Hoover, not us. Other events seen in the film require similar clarity, but a lot of the details of how the orphanage is organized and funded (it’s through the HOPE Foundation) and how Braat gets to live there and why he’s marrying a local woman whom he doesn’t seem terribly enamored with, this stuff winds up remaining rather vague. Hoover might share only what he knows as he experienced it, but if that’s the case he was often in the dark about certain specifics or just wasn’t curious enough to know or pay attention.
Understandably, the most coherent part of the film is Braat’s back story growing up in America, the stuff Hoover would know best, which is depicted in animated form during the opening credits. Following that, we officially meet the subject as he arrives back in Pittsburgh because his Visa has run out. He’s a changed man and has trouble readjusting to his old home and culture. All he wants to do is get back to the kids, and he asks Hoover to come with him to see why. They go, and we all watch as Braat interact with the little ones, in many a montage of playing and dancing, as the director chimes in with personal confessions of his cautious ignorance regarding AIDS and his own safety.
The two are joined on the trip by at least one other friend, cinematographer John Pope, whose images I’d call the true star of the film. Blood Brother is a beautiful-looking documentary, even when it’s capturing tragedies such as the opening sequence and another upsetting section involving a little boy who is literally physically falling apart. And where Hoover himself might be insufficient in providing exposition, the camerawork does provide excellent coverage, particularly evident in those first moments where we have only cinematic language for communication. It’s not always enough for the profile on Braat (we never even learn that the subject is also a great photographer in his own right, as seen in the film’s companion book, I Was Always Beautiful), but as a way of showing what affected the director and ultimately made him realize his friend’s choice to stay, it works.
Many will see Blood Brother as primarily a film about Braat and about the kids. They’ll see him as a selfless, saintly character and the orphans as being in need. And maybe it won’t bother anyone to know that he’s basically a Christian missionary who has been converting the kids*. That’s something not shown in the documentary, though perceptive viewers might pick up on some of the religious stuff anyway. For instance, at the end of the film, Hoover says that while the villagers believe Braat saved one child in particular, Braat claims it was God who saved him. That revelation seems at odds with an earlier scene where the subject dismisses the idea of a sick girl being better off in her temple than a hospital. Maybe because he didn’t accept the local gods to have the power of his own.
Is the documentary secretly Christian propaganda? Is it deceitful for not acknowledging Braat’s true agenda in India? I don’t think I’d go as far to say yes to either of these questions. Hoover simply has made a film about what he saw, from his perspective, and the religious stuff might not have seemed a big deal to address if it was all just natural to him, as a Christian himself. There is, however, the matter that while the film itself doesn’t promote any link to a charity or “how you can help,” its website does. Plus all proceeds from the film are apparently going to the orphans and to AIDS/HIV initiatives. That should be fine. There’s no reason to assume all Christian missionaries to be bad (even if you recently saw the doc God Loves Uganda) or that the money spent on a ticket is necessarily going to the goal of converting the kids, but it is probably something that some interested viewers might like to be aware of.
On its own, Blood Brother is a documentary with an originally structured first-person narrative and through that perspective is a stunning look at some terribly unfortunate kids benefited by the love of a devoted foreigner. As such it’s still only a decent debut. It’s also a film that proves the worth of not taking documentaries simply on their own, regardless of what you think about any extra-textual circumstances or purpose.
Blood Brother is now playing in New York City while also continuing festival appearances and other special screenings nationwide. For details and more information on future release dates in other cities, visit the film’s website.
*According to this site. Thanks to Daniel Walber’s comments in our podcast discussion of the film for triggering my curiosity.