If ever a project was a “labor of love,” it’d be Steve Hoover’s documentary Blood Brother, which is about the journey his friend Rocky Braat took, both literally and spiritually. The film explores Braat’s travels to India, where he ended up working with HIV-infected children who become an extended family for the disillusioned American. ”Despite its ostensibly depressing subject and a few tough-to-watch sequences,” wrote Dennis Harvey in Variety, “Blood Brother is never less than engrossing, and it’s often delightful.” Adds Liam Lacey in the Toronto Globe & Mail: “No doubt, Blood Brother is narrowly focused on Braat’s needs and evolution, but in contrast to social-issue films filled with talking-head experts and bullet-point graphs, this is a portrait of a caregiver that goes to the core of motivation – in this case, the need to share love.”
We checked in with filmmaker Hoover, along with the film’s producer, Danny Yourd, to learn more about their own journey to make this film, which premieres on PBS this Monday, January 20 at 10 PM (check local listings).
How did you two first meet and what inspired you to work together on the Blood Brother project?
We first met in college and started working together on assignments. We developed a good working relationship and eventually started a company focused on music videos. After a few years, we were hired by Animal, the production company for Blood Brother, for commercial work. Rocky is a mutual friend and we both watched him as he uprooted his life and moved to India. We were inspired, although somewhat confused by his strong decision to essentially leave everything he had worked for here. We were all in the same place in life, coming out of college, working for a degree and entering the workforce. His decision was something we definitely couldn’t relate to. We had no personal or emotional connection to the kids or India. We wanted to see for ourselves and try to understand the love that Rocky had for these kids. We also wanted to do something apart from commercials and music videos. In many ways, it was an experiment.
How much of an impact does something like the long distance travel involved for this film have on budget? Do you keep your crew tiny so you can manage all the globetrotting?
The majority of the initial budget was all travel expenses. We raised that money through Kickstarter and that covered six people’s flights to India. We slept on Rocky’s cement floor in his hut. So while we were there we had very little, if any, living expenses. Keeping the crew small definitely helped with globetrotting. We all wear multiple hats which helps with our ability to stay small and nimble. As much as traveling affected the budget, we were secure because of Animal’s support.
Along those lines, just a technical question for our budding filmmakers out there: Was it mostly you with the camera, Steve? And what type of camera did you use to achieve such an immediate but sharply attractive look and feel?
We had a small crew for the first trip to India. We carried with us a 5D, 7D [digital still cameras], a small HD Vixia and an 8mm camera with 16 rolls of film. We had enough cameras to pass around so everyone was filming, including the kids at times. John Pope, the cinematographer, spent time crafting principle photography and would document as well. Steve had to go alone on the second trip because of budget. He took a 7D, a few lenses and focused mostly on content.
I would love to ask about the religious question that was raised by a couple of writers who questioned whether certain religious aspects of Rocky’s life and beliefs were left out. I know you wrote about this on your site but could you talk about this question, how fair it is, and how you handled it?
I think it’s perfectly fair that questions about Rocky’s faith were raised. Through our social media and at almost every Q&A I encouraged people to look into the book we published containing Rocky’s journal entries. I explained that the book focuses more on Rocky’s faith, his prayers and personal thoughts. His faith was never something I was trying to hide, it just wasn’t the central focus of the film for artistic reasons. As a filmmaker you only get 90 minutes.
Rocky said many times over, he didn’t want his life to be wasted in a cubicle. He quoted the film About Schmidt in an interview with me, saying, “Once I am dead and everyone who knew me dies too, it will be as though I never existed. What difference has my life made to anyone? None that I can think of. None at all.” This and similar thoughts stuck with him as he [whiled] away at work.
I reacted with a letter of response not because of questions, but because of harmful accusations. There was a false image being drawn of Rocky being a missionary sent by his church, and that the film is really a [part of] some corporate evangelical effort.
What impact do you hope this film will have?
I hope that the film not only deeply benefits the subjects, giving them more resources and opportunities for life, but also hope the film will inspire audiences on a personal level. I don’t have specifics for what I want people to do with that inspiration; I believe that’s up to the individual to figure that out. However, we do have outlets for people to get involved to help with the causes and people in the film.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making this film?
Filming children in adversity. It feels morally inappropriate to film a sick child. Is it better to hold a camera, or lend a hand? Will filming them truly bring support? I had to wrestle with these types of thoughts while filming and while editing. I had to make sure the misfortunes of the children wasn’t being exploited. Apart from this, there were physical and technical challenges with filming in a rural village. We dealt with everything from power cuts to rats.
What would you have liked to include in Blood Brother that didn’t make the cut?
There were many great moments that didn’t make the final cut of the film. I removed a lot of comedy for the most part. There’s always something funny, like some comical exchanges between Rocky and the kids. I also wish I could have showcased every child in the home. I learned everyone’s name, voice, and personality. They are all very special to me and they all deserve to be recognized. Each child has something beautiful and endearing about them.
[spoilers; read this section after watching film]
I was moved by my entire experience in India, but there are two very moving scenes in Blood Brother for me. The death of Vemethi was especially troubling because I had never witnessed a child dying. It was especially difficult because I had known her prior to her death, she wasn’t a complete stranger. It was sad to know that she didn’t have to die, it could have been prevented. The most victorious and moving scene to me, though, was Surya’s entire hospital experience. I have too much to say about it all, but there’s nothing more inspiring than seeing someone come so close to death, then turning the corner and coming back to life. Despair to hope, it was a glorious time.
Have the people featured in the film seen it?
I had the pleasure of sharing Blood Brother with the entire hostel in India. We stretched a bed sheet over the wall and projected the film for all the kids. The response was amazing. There were a lot of tears. They said it was difficult to watch, but overall they were very grateful for the film.
What are you guys working on doing next?
We’re currently in post-production for a character documentary about a Ukrainian man, Gennadiy. We had a successful Kickstarter campaign which allowed us to travel to Ukraine for shooting. Animal is again supporting this film and we’re mostly the same crew from Blood Brother, with one addition. We hope to return to Ukraine soon for more content. The story continues to take shape, it’s layered and difficult to summarize at this point.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Seek advice. That’s one thing we were never afraid to do – ask questions and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Those mistakes make you stronger and better at storytelling.