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.