American finds the meaning of life in orphanage for HIV+ children

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By Harry van Versendaal

Rocky Braat went to India “seeking authenticity.” When he got there he found a bit more than he had bargained for.

The hero of Steve Hoover’s documentary “Blood Brother,” which scooped up the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is also his best friend. Hoover decided to make a movie about his former flatmate after their lives started to follow totally different trajectories about five years ago. It was then that 30-year-old Rocky, born into a dysfunctional and borderline abusive family, decided to quit Pittsburgh PA and a potential career in graphic design and instead move into an orphanage for HIV-positive children in the Asian country’s southern Tamil Nadu state.

Rocky – whom the kids call “Rocky Anna,” Anna being the Tamil word for “brother” – spends his days at the refuge where, as the only adult male, he eagerly fills in as amateur nurse, entertainer and father. In the process, he grapples with extremely challenging circumstances, pain and loss – as he is forced to watch helplessly as some of the kids die of the disease. But he has found purpose.

“I was moved and fascinated by what Rocky was doing. Eventually it just kind of dawned on me to document Rocky and share his story,” Hoover told Kathimerini English Edition in an interview ahead of the film’s screening at the 15th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.

“He had been inviting me to come and visit him in India anyway. After sharing the idea to do a documentary about him, he was very much open to the idea and so I began to move forward with it,” said Hoover, who had until that time been making commercials and music videos.

In early 2011, Hoover took a plane to India with a crew of six. He returned to the village later that year for another three weeks to shoot the second part of the movie. They all stayed in Rocky’s ramshackle, rat-infested hut. Inevitably, being there and making this movie has been a transformative experience for him too.

“It was the first time I had ever been out of the First World and the first time that I had ever made a personal connection with HIV/AIDS. Those two experiences alone had a profound impact on me. I began to care deeply about things I had never given a second thought to. I gained a tremendous amount of perspective on the life of my best friend and learned a great deal about true sacrifice,” he said.

Mostly shot with Canon 7D and 5D cameras (several scenes have been captured on super 8 mm film), “Blood Brother” is a beautifully crafted movie that manages to be heartfelt and inspirational without giving in to easy sensationalism or sentimentalism. Working on the movie has caused Hoover to re-examine the value of his time and energy, he says.

“In the words of Rocky, I want my life to count. I don’t want to spend my days only to accomplish nothing. I know I’ll have to continue to work on things that are empty and meaningless, but that can’t be all that I do,” he said.

The first trip to India was crowd-funded through Kickstarter. The team used up the funds, and had to dig into their own pockets for the second trip. So far virtually everyone has worked for free – donating their time, talent and expertise toward the project.

“I was impacted by the amount of support we received. It’s humbling to look back on and realize how much of this depended on the generosity of others. Receiving that much support from so many different people gave me a lot of hope for how much people actually do care,” Hoover said.

The creators say they have zero debt and are set up to donate all their profits. They are using all of their monetary gain from the film to support the hostel and Rocky, as well as other HIV/AIDS initiatives around the world.

In one of the movie’s most interesting interludes, visa complications temporarily send Rocky back to his Pittsburgh neighborhood. When he is not bored, an obviously out-of-place Rocky is awkwardly examining products on the overflowing shelves of the local supermarket.

When he finally returns, the film enters its most harrowing episode, as one of the little boys from the orphanage is so sick that even the doctors at the hospital have given up on him. It is almost painful to watch Rocky’s steadfast refusal to leave the boy’s side for days and nights on end, washing his sores, covering him in lotion and refusing to allow him to die.

Rocky is still living in India, happily married to a local woman. He certainly doesn’t seem to have lost any of his energy or purpose according to Hoover. He is now making plans to build a halfway house for the kids in the hostel that reach the age limit – the refuge cannot hold kids beyond the age of 15 – and have to enter society and live on their own. He is also planning to start small businesses that the kids can run and operate when they come of age.

“The businesses will be fair labor hours that the kids can handle with all of the challenges that come from having HIV/AIDS. We plan to accomplish all of this with money generated from the film,” Hoover said. It’s a fitting ambition.

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