[21 January 2014]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“When Rocky made the decision to move to India, I thought he was being impulsive. So I tried to be supportive,” narrates filmmaker Steve Hoover. This after you’ve watched several minutes of Rocky Braat in India, that is, a version of “India” at once familiar and alarming. Rocky is on hand as a man lifts an ailing girl, her body distressingly thin and limp, then carries her through the night to a motorbike, holding her in his arms as Rocky drives, pausing for a few moments of discussion at a railroad crossing, then making its way, at last, away from the camera.
Here Hoover’s film, Blood Brother, cuts from a close-up of the girl, laid like an angel on green leaves, to a perfectly framed shot of Rocky and Hoover leaned against a wall, their faces shadowed and expressions anguished. You’re struck by the exquisite pain of the sequence, the elegant shadow and light, the purple sari covering her chest, the rich green of the leaves behind her head. If what’s happened to the girl is unclear, Rocky’s woe is made vivid.
Just so, the film—which premieres this week on PS’ Independent Lens series—goes on to give some backstory, not for the girl, afflicted with HIV, but for Rocky, the filmmaker’s close friend since childhood. “I thought he’d always be around,” Hoover says as you see home video of the young men embracing on a beach, maybe, apparently, at Hoover’s wedding to an off-screen bride. Despite Rocky’s entreaties, Hoover says, he’s resisted visiting him “in India”, though they’ve kept in touch by email and Skype. Now, as the film begins again, three months before the scene showing the girl at night, as Hoover drives to the airport to pick up Rocky, who has been working with HIV+ orphans and whose visa has been rejected. “To be honest,” Hoover offers, “part of me didn’t want Rocky to make it in India.”
As complicated as this relationship between two friends might sound, the film soon shifts focus to the great good work that Rocky does “in India”. As Hoover remembers it, Rocky leaves Pittsburgh for the other side of the world for unclear reasons; “He just said he was seeking authenticity.” Like so many white male heroic types before him, Rocky seeks this experience in an exotic place where people are plagued by poverty and disease. By way of evidence for Rocky’s personal inclinations, the film offers an animated illustration of a story his father tells, when little boy Rocky nursed back to health a kitten whose injuries seemed obviously fatal. Hoover’s post-airport footage shows Rocky looking lost in a supermarket, unable to readjust himself to life in the US.
While this suggests the son’s gift, the film notes as well that his mother was alcoholic and father Largent, details that augment the story of his determination. A few minutes later, Rocky and Hoover head back, despite and because of Rocky’s confessed “fear of failing”. As he speaks, the camera cuts from his face, pensive, to his packing process, meager: “There so much riding on it, going back means suffering,” he says. “I mean India’s pretty brutal, so I know it’ll eat on me and there’s no telling how discouraged I’ll get.” Before he goes, Rocky eats pizza, making a point to note Hoover’s choice to shoot him at the table, eyes half closed, chewing.
Such self-awareness is at once fascinating and disconcerting in Blood Brother. At first, it’s of a piece with the “authenticity” Rocky seeks, an acknowledgment of the apparatus of the film as means to tell a story, the collaboration of director and subject as they convey their experience. It’s plain enough that the friends have a plan for the film, that Hoover makes choices and so too does Braat, in what to say, what to show and what to omit, whatever these details may be. “It was exhausting trying to keep up with Rocky,” observes Hoover. “It seemed like he had friends everywhere.”
The emphasis for the bulk of the documentary is on Rocky’s much less self-aware interactions with these many friends, his tending to them like sick kittens, his spiritual education as he observes patients—adults and children—grappling with the lack of toothbrushes and soap, as well as the certainty of difficulty and death. “It took some time to train myself to see them, not the sores,” Rocky says.
That Rocky and Hoover arrive in India (or again, “in India”) without having done much research or with a sense of local culture might be predictable for a couple of guys who’ve come of age in a world framed by monitors and iPhones, but such self-oriented is troubling nonetheless. For all their carefully performed camera-awareness, the film is also strikingly precious, seemingly utterly unaware of the clichés it’s using. While it may or may not be the case that the filmmaker’s own background affects or even effects these limits, Blood Brother, like any film, is premised on them, on what it doesn’t show as much as what it does.
Blood Brother celebrates Rocky for his selflessness and courage, his willingness to suffer. But that very celebration is so overstated that it becomes distracting. Repeatedly, Rocky’s devotion to the children—“I feel fortunate just to know them”—is rendered in beautifully organized and perfectly colored frames, tight shots of anguished faces, long shots of the kids with arms around their beloved visitor, a frankly striking shot of his hand on a sleepy child’s head that pans to show a lens flare just behind his head. It makes you wonder just whose self is aware of what.