Hoover and "Blood Brother" call it a wrap on the film festival
Whether it's a street away or a hemisphere away, it's amazing where we often find the people who will change our lives forever and the places where we truly feel that we belong. In the case of Rocky Braat, it took a trip to a world an ocean away to find where he belonged and an unlikely community of young strangers turned brothers.
Braat's story of unconventional connection provides the core for director Steve Hoover's documentary "Blood Brother," the closing night selection for the Milwaukee Film Festival. The film has been winning over the hearts of audiences – with the awards to prove it – on the festival circuit for the past year. That includes both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, where Hoover's feature won over other high-profile documentaries, such as "Blackfish," "After Tiller" and "20 Feet From Stardom."
"Blood Brother" follows Braat as he travels to India to try to find himself and his place or some meaning for his life. When he gets to India, Braat discovers an orphanage and care center for children and women ailing from HIV and AIDS. Instead of feeling bad, donating some money and moving on, Braat – also from a childhood of neglect – ends up forging a close connection with the kids. In fact, after his journey was over, he came back to volunteer, help and merely be with a group of people seemingly closer than family.
This is where Hoover – one of Braat's best friends back in the States – comes into the picture.
"We lived together for about seven and a half years before he finally moved to India," Hoover said. "I knew about what he was doing there because I was around when he took his first trip. Naturally, I was always curious about it but never enough to go with him."
Braat would send stories from his physical and emotional journey back home to Hoover. Some would be very happy and joyful. Others would be very sad and painful. When he finally came back home from his first extended trip out to India, Braat clearly came back a different, changed person.
"I remember when he came back, he was kind of glowing," Hoover said. "He came back wearing a lungi around the house. You could see he was deep in thought a lot about the kids. Sitting back and watching all of this, I just couldn't connect with any of it. I didn't understand why he felt so strongly because I didn't share any of those feelings. I was very interested in comfort and not going outside of my comfort zone. And for me, going to India was that."
Eventually, Hoover managed to break out of his comfort zone and decided to go with Braat back to India. The filmmaker was always interested in making a documentary, and Braat's story – one that Hoover thought deserved to be shared with others – would be a good opportunity to give it a try.
"It just kind of all came together," Hoover said. "I thought, 'My great friend is in this interesting place and doing very interesting work, and he himself is kind of complex and interesting.' I just thought it'd be great to visit him and do a documentary, so I approached him, and he was very open to it."
So Hoover joined his friend on his next trip to India and the orphanage. Soon after arriving, Hoover was amazed by the new environment.
"There was this weird sense of freedom," Hoover said. "I'm not sure what that was. And then going back to the village and finally getting there, India kind of slowly revealed itself. I was kind of instantly hooked. It was the first time I had been somewhere so different from everything I knew."
The most incredible sight for Hoover, though, was seeing his good friend Braat with so many relationships with the people of the village. He had even learned the language to better communicate with the people he had grown to love and care for.
"It was exciting, but it was also bizarre because I was seeing Rocky in a way I had never seen him before," Hoover said.
As you would imagine, however, it was not a vacation. The uncomfortable heat of the region made work difficult for Hoover and his crew. Most importantly, though, there was the orphanage itself, where the people and especially children Braat and Hoover had gotten to bond with were often sick and suffering. The experience not only opened Hoover's eyes to a new part of the world and its problems, but also to a new respect for his friend.
"He pushes through a lot of those discomforts to help people and do what he's doing," Hoover said. "If he wasn't there, I don't think I would've been able to do this and push through for these people. It was a realization that I don't have it in me like he does. So that was really challenging and humbling to learn about myself, my limits and how far I would go for people."
Even so, Hoover has returned to the country several times. By the third trip, he had studied with a bit of the language learned in the hopes of communicating better with the locals. He and Braat created relationships with many of the children from the village, and they still keep in contact.
"It's exciting knowing that in this rural village in another part of the world, I have friends," Hoover said.
As a filmmaker, Hoover has moved onto a new documentary called "Gennadiy," which is about a Ukrainian vigilante who, for the past 15 years, has fought drug lords and found lost children in his corrupt, broken town. But the Indian village and orphanage have not been forgotten. In fact, Hoover noted that all of the proceeds from "Blood Brother" are going toward helping the community, including a halfway house for kids who become too old for the orphanage and small businesses in the area.
And as for Rocky, he still lives and helps in the Indian village with his wife. After all, once you find where you belong with those you love, it's hard to imagine being anywhere else.
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