By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

Sundance Review: Blood Brother

While on a vacation to India to find both himself and a more “authentic way of living,” Rocky Braat decided to visit an orphanage for children with HIV. He expected he’d visit the kids, feel sad, and leave – and he did. But something kept pulling him back to that place, so he returned to spend the rest of his vacation there with the children who’d come to call him “Rocky anna,” (“anna” meaning “brother”).

Perhaps it was the smiles and laughter of these kids, determined to enjoy life in spite of the hardships they face. Perhaps it was the simplicity of the lifestyle in India; when your day-to-day life is about minimalist survival, you don’t have to worry about things like credit card debt, or making sure you have the latest model smartphone, or the nicest apartment, or the coolest friends, or the hippest clothes. Perhaps it was some deeper spiritual call, a desire to strip away the typically materialistic Western values with which he’d been raised, to find the purity in a life of giving to others rather than taking from them. Or perhaps Rocky simply found in the children of that orphanage the closeness of family and unconditional love that he lacked at home. Whatever the case, he also found he didn’t want to leave. These kids needed him, and perhaps he needed them as well.

Without employment in India, though, Rocky was forced to return to the United States, but upon his return he found it impossible to fit back into a societal structure he now found largely meaningless, and to friends caught up in their own busy lives. When he was eventually able to return to India, he gave up everything he had in America and moved there with a suitcase packed with toys for the kids, and there he stayed, adopted a sparse lifestyle in a ramshackle, rat-infested house with no running water, in part because he didn’t want to be perceived as having a different lifestyle than those he was there to serve, and in part, it seems, because he found a sort of spiritual, almost monk-like cleansing in ridding himself of material goods and comforts.

Rocky’s friend, filmmaker Steve Hoover, documented his friend’s personal journey in the excellent, deeply moving film Blood Brother, playing here at Sundance in the US Documentary competition, and the end result is a completing absorbing look at a world that Western audience’s may at times find hard to watch. There is ignorance in this place, and fear, particularly evidenced when the villagers learn that the orphanage is a haven for HIV positive children and mothers. Fear of HIV runs strong, and the villagers don’t take too kindly to this news. Rocky’s frustration with the villagers is clear; how can anyone think it’s wrong to help these lost children who need love and support to survive? There’s also the grim reality Rocky has to face that it’s not so easy to keep a sick child alive in this place. The access to medical care the Western world takes for granted just isn’t as accessible in India, particularly to sick orphans with no money. And then there’s the inevitability of loss that comes with working with children who are ill; Rocky struggles with this as well, though he grimly faces it, acknowledging that this is what he signed up for, and the kids need him.

Hoover, a professional videographer, captures some excellent footage here of the orphanage and village, and both cinematography and editing contribute greatly to capturing the feel of this place. We also see lots of the kids just being kids, and of the children’s relationship with Rocky and his with them, and it’s clear that as much as Rocky has given of himself to these children, what he gets in return from them — their openness and their love, and perhaps most of all the sense that they’ve come to truly depend on him — is priceless. There are some sequences in Blood Brother that are very tough to watch, but that’s what life – and death – are like in this world Rocky has adopted as his own, and the reality is that to not show it in both its moments of light and its moments of darkness would be to do the film, and the children, a great disservice.

It’s clear that both Rocky and Hoover have been greatly changed by their experiences; what’s more surprising is how effective Blood Brother is at moving the audience as well. This is a richly layered, ethically complex, wrenching and sometimes brutal film and boy, does Hoover put the audience through the wringer, though thankfully never in a way that feels overly manipulative or contrived. Rocky himself feels both utterly genuine and utterly human, and doesn’t shirk from letting us see him in his bad moments as well as the good. He wrestles with how to handle a relationship with an Indian girl he’d like to marry; he comes to terms with handling blood and other bodily fluids without blanching; and most of all he learns from the children themselves that what they most want is to be treated as the normal, beautiful kids they are and not as pariahs. And so Rocky — more quickly than Hoover, who has a bit more of a hurdle to overcome with it all — touches the children, puts bandages on little owies, and even eats off their plates when they offer him food. It’s clear that all he really wants is to love these kids, and accept their love in return.

Blood Brother
was funded entirely from donations of time and money, with the goal being that any profits the film should make will all go back to the orphans at the heart of the story. This couldn’t be more fitting; in spite of tragic loss and terrible suffering it’s the children, who are endlessly positive and optimistic despite their situation, who uplift both the story and the audience.

One Response to “Sundance Review: Blood Brother”

  1. Blood Brother is truly an amazing movie. This is a great example of how one person can make a difference. Truly humbling and inspiring. My wife and I agreed that watching this film changed our lives for the better.

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This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin