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The opening minutes of Blood Brother are disorienting and horrid. There’s no context to a scene that involves a dark room surrounded by onlookers gawking through barred windows at a sick Indian girl, her distraught father and a young white man urging the father to go, now, to the hospital. The young white man can take them on his motorcycle, but they have to go—now.
What follows is a rush that you can barely make out in the wobbly headlights of the motorcycles and passing street lamps. The action only slows once the motorcycles are blocked at a train crossing. There’s yelling and panic and pleas for the girl to hold on and then she goes completely limp in her father’s arms on the back of the bike. Without knowing who these people are, what’s happening, and why on earth the situation has come down to this desperate ride, the images are so startling that you can’t help but rearrange in your seat, refocus your eyes and start to process what the hell is going on.
Then the opening credits start.
Few other films have affected me as much as director Steve Hoover’s Blood Brother. It alternates between such powerful displays of love and kindness, and loss and pain, that by the end you’re somehow both spent and hopeful. I cried during most of the second half—and choked up again while telling my wife about it afterwards. I sound like a sap, except that I’m apparently not the only one. Blood Brother came away from Sundance last month with both grand jury and audience honors for best documentary.
The young white man in the opening scene is Rocky Braat, an aimless Pittsburgh native who decided to find himself by traveling to India. He shocked his friends and remaining family by choosing to stay abroad and continue working in a tiny village with HIV-infected orphans—a decision that his best friend, Hoover, doesn’t really understand until he visits with camera in hand.
Rocky becomes everything to a group of children that have almost nothing. While many visitors flinch at the thought of caring for or playing with HIV-infected children, Rocky hugs them, wrestles with them, shares food with them, helps them with their medication and dresses their many wounds. They call him “Rocky anna,” or Brother Rocky. He’s the family they’ve never had and, to a certain extent, they are the same to him.
The nature of this work involves suffering, of course, and Hoover’s complete access allows us to see the harshest sides of Rocky’s saintly efforts. The kids are hurting, resources are limited, and there are moments when Rocky’s unflinching care seems like it can only do so much. In other moments, his motivations are second-guessed and actions criticized. To Hoover’s credit, he shows it all.
Even in the few scenes when Blood Brother hits the wrong note, it ends up working. During one crushing event, Rocky breaks into a song by Death Cab by Cutie. It feels forced, but in hindsight reminds us that this unlikely hero is just a big-hearted, Joey Tribbiani-looking dude from the Steel City. A million others like him end up content and working as bank tellers or bartenders or something, and that’s fine. But he decided to sit bedside or play in patches of dirt a world away, providing unconditional love to those who need it most.
Rocky’s path—and his steadfast commitment to it as the film goes on—turns out to be just one of many remarkable turns in Blood Brother. Perhaps the most remarkable, however, is that amid such challenging circumstances, this film manages to inspire and encourage. The tears aren’t all sad.
Blood Brother screens at the Wilma Thu., Feb. 21, at 5 PM.