Steve Hoover says that his best friend, Rocky Braat, was always interested in serving people. Braat, whom Hoover got to know when the two lived across the hall from each other at a commercial art school in Pittsburgh, got pleasure from cooking for friends and playing his guitar for them.
“He was a giving person. He’d take care of me and others in different ways,” Hoover said.
Still, Hoover, who has known Braat since 2001 and shared a house with him for seven years, wasn’t prepared for the extent of his friend’s capacity for service. When Braat left for India, in the summer of 2008, Hoover expected something of a disaster.
“I had these ideas of what Rocky would look like — this wrecking ball, stepping all over the culture, unintentionally offending people left and right,” he said.
Instead, Braat found a home. More or less by chance, he landed at an orphanage for HIV-infected children in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Contrary to his friend’s prediction, Braat fits in perfectly and still lives in the rural village where the orphanage is located. Braat also has found a purpose in caring for the children. The orphans call him Rocky Anna — “brother” in the Tamil language — and joyfully jump into his arms. But Braat’s life isn’t all happy moments. He spends much of his time in bare-bones hospitals, trying to keep the kids alive; he isn’t always successful. He rubs ointment on the children’s boils and makes them take the medicines that might prolong life but can have sickening side effects. And many of Braat’s hours are spent in despair, bemoaning the fact that as much as he does, he can’t do more.
When Hoover went to visit India to make a film about his friend, he was amazed by the life that Braat had willingly stepped into.
“Following him around, I realized how difficult it is to do that, day to day, so relentlessly,” the 30-year-old Hoover said from his office in Pittsburgh. “There were times, physically and mentally, I wanted him to stop for my sake. I was exhausted.”
Hoover’s documentary “Blood Brother” — which opens the “New Views: Documentaries & Dialogue” series with a screening Monday at Paepcke Auditorium — details Braat’s difficult childhood. He didn’t know till he was 7 that the gentleman raising him in Geneva-on-the-Lake, Ohio, wasn’t his father but his grandfather. Though he had a good heart, a good head and artistic talent, there was something unsettled and unfulfilled about him.
“I always described him as somewhat erratic,” said Hoover, who grew up in small towns in western Pennsylvania. “He almost moved to Alaska. He moved to Los Angeles for two or three months, then moved back. He went on the road working with his uncle, replacing light bulbs in convenience stores.”
Braat’s life now may be exotic and eccentric, but he can hardly be called erratic. For the orphans, he is the most dependable thing they have. He is at the orphanage virtually every day and tends to all of the children’s needs, playing with them, feeding them and sleeping at their bedsides in the hospital. In this devotion, Braat has found not exactly peace; the region where “Blood Brother” is set, and maybe India on the whole, doesn’t foster peacefulness. But he has found a sense of purpose and stability by investing himself in problems that are bigger by far than his own.
“Blood Brother,” Hoover’s first directorial project following seven years in the commercial film industry, with many music videos to his credit, earned a pair of major awards in January at the Sundance Film Festival — the Audience Award and Grand Jury Award in the documentary category — plus honors at festivals in Italy, Canada, Greece and Atlanta. Much of the appeal of the film is in Braat’s transformation — how he went from uncomfortable in his native surroundings to finding himself in India.
“Everything he’s been doing there has had such an impact on who he is,” said Hoover, who will be in attendance for Monday’s screening. “You can’t help but grow as a human being with the circumstances there. It can either harden someone’s heart, or it can make them grow. Rocky’s been hurt; you get affected by a lot of this stuff. But I’ve seen Rocky take the road of growth.”
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In mid-2008, with Hoover about to get married (and end seven years of rooming with Braat), Braat announced he was moving to India. He stayed the summer.
“And when he came back, there was something different about him,” Hoover said.
Braat said he was planning to return to India, and the way he prepared while working as a graphic designer in Pittsburgh showed Hoover that even the short summer visit had altered his friend.
“He was enthusiastic about moving,” Hoover said. “He was marking down the days. He had pictures of the kids all over the walls, started selling things, saving his money.”
In 2011, Hoover made two trips to India and began to see how Braat could find his place there.
“Rocky’s wild at heart, wild natured, and that’s how India is, too. That character fit well into the environment and it didn’t fit so well here,” he said. “Rocky wanted to be free. I’ll never forget, one of the first feelings I had stepping into the India night was freedom. Something of that must have resonated with who Rocky is and who he wanted to be.”
It is a peculiar sort of freedom Braat has found. Seeking to keep the distance between him and the orphans at a minimum, Braat treats himself to almost none of the luxuries one might expect of a relatively privileged Westerner. He still lives in a shack in the village, without insects and rats but without air conditioning. He delegates none of the care for the kids. As “Blood Brother” seems to suggest, there is no one around to delegate to; responsible, clear-headed adults seem to be absent amid the dozens of orphans. If there is freedom here, it is in the freedom that comes when one already has committed to his path and there is only one way to go.
“I think he’s challenged. There are things about the culture that are challenging for him,” Hoover said. “But in many ways he is fulfilled. I can’t see him not there. I can’t see him back here. He’s still got that passion.”
One of the achievements of “Blood Brother” is how the focus becomes not Braat himself but the work he does and the bond with the children.
“That’s the strongest thing I saw there. If it wasn’t for the kids, I don’t think he’d be there,” Hoover said.
Hoover added that he doesn’t think the fact that the subject of the film was his best friend affected his perspective. “Blood Brother” doesn’t depict Braat as an extraordinary person but as a young man going through an extraordinary experience.
“I set out to be as honest and brutal as possible. If Rocky had some major blow-up on camera, I’d put it in there,” he said. “You see his challenges, the emotional pull on him, and you see him get to this genuine place.”
The most gripping sequence of the film is when an orphan boy becomes gravely ill, his body covered in sores.
“I would have given up on him. Waking up on hospital floors, the dirt, seeing dead bodies around — that’s a reasonable excuse to check out,” Hoover said. “To see somebody push through that and save somebody’s life — there was no question that Rocky was being genuine.”
Reflecting on what Braat was like back in Pittsburgh, Hoover realizes that his friend’s restlessness stemmed from not knowing what to do with his need to serve others.
“When he moved, we had a going-away party and I said, He outgrew the pot in terms of giving and serving,” Hoover said. “There just weren’t enough people who needed and wanted it here. He needed a place where the needs were bigger.”