India has always beckoned those, from every corner of the globe, who are seeking answers. And Rocky Braat, a young American man from Pittsburgh, is no exception. The son of an alcoholic mother who neglected him, and a father who left him and joined the military when he was just three years old, Rocky was brought up by his grandparents.
But as grateful as he was to his grandfather, and as much as he loved him, he never stopped longing for what his life was lacking. A family. A typical, close-knit family of his own.
So that’s why he went to India. In search of love.
What he didn’t expect, was to end up volunteering in an orphanage, refuge, school and care centre for children, and women, infected with HIV.
What he didn’t expect, was the degree of suffering he would encounter. The poverty, the squalor, the alienation, the inadequacies, the devastating losses, the gut-wrenching loneliness, the hardship and the misery.
What he didn’t expect was that it would be there, in Chennai, amid all the pain and horror and feeling of helplessness every time another child died, he would find more love and devotion than he could ever have imagined or hoped for. That it would be here, he would finally find his family.
“Blood Brother”, a documentary produced and directed by his best friend, Steve Hoover, is his story. I saw it on Tuesday night; and it’s one of the best films I’ve seen at HotDocs. Maybe one of the best ever. And I’m not the only one who feels this way. It played at Sundance, where it won both the Audience Award and the US Grand Jury Prize.
Doesn’t get much better than that.
On that first trip, Rocky initially spent a month at the orphanage, before leaving to see more of the country. But he missed the kids, and went back for a few more months, until his visa expired; and he was forced to return to the U.S. He quickly found himself adrift. He couldn’t concentrate. He couldn’t get into anything. He had no motivation.
He was unhappy back home, and missed the kids tremendously. And so, within a year, he was back. This time taking his friend with him.
Visually, much of the film is shocking and not easy to watch. Especially for the squeamish. The unimaginable filth. The complete lack of sanitation. How the bodies of children in later stages of the disease are literally ravaged. Skin peeling off, sores bursting and bleeding, lips being eaten away. Very tough stuff. But then there was the tenderness, as Rocky tended to them, gently and fearlessly. Cleaning them. Putting salve on their wounds. Rinsing their eyes, to prevent blindness.
Hugging them. Holding them. Willing them to survive which, amazingly, they sometimes did. Not always. But sometimes.
All without a care for himself. Half the time he wasn’t even wearing protective gloves. Which had me gasping, to be honest. And holding my breath on the two occasions he went to be tested for HIV. Thankfully, not to mention miraculously, his tests were negative.
And because he didn’t want them to feel like outcasts, he would share their food and share his with them. They’d all eat off the same plates. He played with them, and stayed with them, and cared for them, and held them, and hugged them, and kissed them, and loved them. And treated them as if they were his own flesh and blood. Without thinking, for even a minute, he was putting his own life at risk.
Talk about a calling.
Today, he’s still there and married. He’s just bought land from his wife’s family, so they can build a house (make that a hut). India is now his home. And the children are his family. He and Steve have started a foundation and all the money the film ever makes, will be donated to the foundation. They’re also in negotiations with a pharmaceutical company who will, hopefully, provide them with newer and more effective medications for the kids.
Look for this film to come out where you live. You will never see anything more powerful or more moving. And if you don’t walk out of that theatre grateful for the life you have, something’s very wrong.
There is no question India changed Rocky Braat’s life. I promise you, this film will change yours.