Winner of both the US Grand Jury Prize (Documentary) and the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance fest, Blood Brother is a devastating documentary about Indian children suffering with HIV and AIDS. Though it would be easy for one to think that everything has already been said about the epidemic, director Steve Hoover demonstrates there’s still much to say and much to learn in this unexpectedly uplifting if emotionally wrenching film, which should be considered a major threat for Academy Award contention later in the year with the right distribution.
Pittsburgh native Rocky Braat didn’t have the best childhood, and hoped that a trip to India might help him “find himself” as an adult. When we first meet Rocky, he is working at an Indian care center for women and children afflicted by HIV and AIDS, and the mutual bond formed between him and the children is unmistakable; he pains to be away from them, and they very much accept him as one of their family, just as he does to them. When returning to India after fixing a Visa snafu, he invites filmmaker and best friend Steve Hoover along to visit and, naturally, document some footage.
This is an intimate, tender documentary composed of many small, astounding moments. When Hoover first visits Rocky, it’s clear that he is uncomfortable being around people afflicted by HIV, while by contrast, Rocky is by now completely comfortable with it. However, over the course of Steve’s visit, his personal and journalistic distance both begin to waver, becoming drawn into Rocky and these kids’ world, moved as we are by the man’s unwavering devotion to his cause, one which clearly rubs off on the filmmaker.
One remarkable aspect of the footage is how often Rocky appears to be the primary care-giver for so many of these children; adults other than Rocky and Steve are scarcely featured for long stretches, other than a group of local villagers who are upset to discover that they are living nearby AIDS-afflicted children. In many situations, these kids have nothing but Rocky – he is an invaluable resource who is sorely missed in his absence.
The kids themselves, meanwhile, are delightful, demonstrating an indomitable sense of spirit that makes it all the more harrowing when some inevitably succumb to their disease. Some might argue that these queasy glimpses of overwhelming ill health – and in one case, an on-screen death – are private moments not meant for our eyes, yet the images carry an undeniably stirring power that, if nothing else, will make viewers grateful for the hand they’ve been dealt in life.
Skeptical viewers might fear that Blood Brother is going to be another film about the white savior riding over the hill to save the impoverished foreigners, though Hoover smartly confronts this accusation head on – in one interview, Rocky demonstrates startling self-awareness, noting his fear of this assertion, yet believing that at the end of the day, when he is with the children, his skin colour is simply not a consideration. If audiences take one thing away from the film, it will probably be that this is a man without a single conceit or an agenda beyond helping people.
If it proves an unavoidably upsetting experience, Blood Brother also features many surprising moments of joy; the look on the children’s faces when their “big brother” Rocky returns to India will surely move even the most toughened cynic. To observe how drastically Rocky’s experience has changed his life – I think most would argue for the better – will cause audiences to think hard about what they’re doing with their own lives.
Tightly edited from a combination of gorgeous HD video footage, handheld cameras, pictures and other archive videos, Hoover’s film has all the emotional swell of a narrative feature, with the added bonus that they are real people in real situations. Uncompromising and enormously life-affirming, this is sure to be one of the year’s must-see documentaries.
Blood Brother premieres at Sundance London on April 26th.
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