Roughly midway into “Blood Brother,” you hear a voice offscreen say somewhat in awe, “It’s weird you can’t put this on camera – the experience.”
Ironically, that voice was the filmmaker Steve Hoover’s.
“While I was editing the film, I put that in because I’m like I don’t know if people are really going to get it, so I at least want to make note of that.”
Hoover needn’t have worried about capturing the contradictory mix of beauty and desperation that he found in India when he followed his best friend Rocky to the village of Tamil Nadu, where HIV is rampant yet spirits remain high thanks to the dedication of those who care for those with the disease and aim to prevent the spread of it. Yet the offhanded comment does speak to the ineffable quality of what unfolds before his camera as Rocky introduces Steve to a life he had no idea about despite their close bond, with Rocky leaving behind his work as a graphic designer in Pittsburgh to work for an orphanage comprised of children touched by HIV after going on a search for purpose in his life.
In the process of making “Blood Brother,” Hoover found the trajectory of his own life changed, making his first documentary and already moving onto the next (“Gennadiy,” an equally fascinating tale that we profiled earlier this year) by bringing his considerable skill for fast-paced storytelling to bear on longer-form narratives that not only entertain but may actually make a difference. Recently, Hoover took the time to talk about making that transition, wrestling with making a film about someone he knew so well during a time of change, and how the filmmaking team decided to donate the proceeds of the film to charity.
Had you had wanted to make a film outside of your commercial work for awhile or was the decision to make a movie come about purely because of Rocky’s story?
It was a mixture of both. I wanted to go to India and I always wanted to do a doc, and I was having a reaction to losing passion for filmmaking and for commercial work and everything I was doing. When I started thinking about Rocky and everything he was doing, reading e-mails from him, and just trying to picture him there and understand what it is that ultimately kept him there. Rocky traveled around and lived in other places before, but he always came back to Pittsburgh, but he wasn’t coming back from this trip.
This film seems to draw upon a lot of the skills you’d use for making commercials – it’s colorful, fast-paced and full of instantly evocative imagery. Was it interesting to apply those to this kind of storytelling?
Definitely. The funny thing is since it was initially partly a reaction to commercial production, I was lazy with my interviews at first. Just being with Rocky sitting at my house, I would turn the camera on and not even care about the shot. As I got more into the documentary, I started focusing more on the production value and realized in post that I had made a mistake in the beginning. I didn’t want the film to just be talking heads. I wanted to be visually more interesting and engaging. Having worked on so many short-form commercials and videos, I wanted to apply that style of editing to backstories and things that generally would just be Rocky talking.
Was there a moment when you knew you had a movie?
I think I had one of those moments after the second trip [to India]. After the first trip, I felt like there was a lot of really interesting stuff. Rocky’s relationship with the kids was really special, but there’s a lot Rocky hadn’t gone through yet. That year was really critical for his final transformation, his final absolute commitment to India and to the kids.
After the second trip and seeing him go through everything — the positive things, the deeper things — that’s when I started feeling like there was something special within the footage.
Was it a surreal feeling to know Rocky so well as a friend, but to see him change in front of your camera and understand that as almost an impartial observer as a filmmaker?
Yeah. That’s something that really stood out to me. I didn’t connect with what Rocky was doing. I had no emotional connection with his work and the kids and his life [in India]. When I saw it, I felt like I was seeing a Rocky I didn’t know. He was really impressed that I was impressed by him, by his life there and by everything he was doing and just how he had really made a home. It just seemed like second nature for him, living in this hut and not having the amenities.
I had never seen him in this context. He had all these relationships, not just with the kids [at the orphanage], but with the villagers as well. It was just this whole other side of his life I didn’t know. To see him throughout the year embrace that even more was definitely a surreal experience for me. It really got me interested even more.
Was it an easy decision to include yourself in the film?
No, definitely not. From the beginning, I wanted to talk a little bit about our friendship because I felt it was special. Rocky and I are very close. The first rough cut I had done, there were pieces of me in the film. The point of that was I wanted the viewer to feel like they were taking the trip with me. I didn’t have any narration or voiceover – all that basically came after the first rough cut when I started talking with people and realized that that thread needed to be there [to explain] the connection to Rocky and that there was a change that happened. But people were seeing there was something happening to me and they wanted to understand that more. When I started exploring that, it made a lot of sense.
The good thing is I had done a lot of daily logs while I was in India. At the end of every day, I would just record the experiences, how I felt and just make it raw – this is what I was thinking and feeling at this moment. Still, it was hard to do the narration. I really don’t like hearing my voice recorded, so it was a painstaking process.
Was it as nervewracking for you to show the film to the orphanage? I understand you showed it there shortly after it was finished.
We did a screening for them in December, actually before Sundance. I took a five-week trip with my wife to the village. We traveled around India a little bit and we did a screening for all the kids. We hung a bed sheet on the wall and projected the film. Everyone just gathered around and watched it. It was a really good experience. The kids were moved. They laughed a lot. I would talk to people, they described it as very difficult to watch and to experience, but on that same note, they’re grateful.
They all knew what happened to Surya [a young boy who Rocky becomes particularly attached to as he grows more ill], but they didn’t see it. Watching one of their own come so close to death and they’re all susceptible to that same thing, I think [being able to see that entire situation unfold] gave them a lot of inspiration. The staff really enjoyed it as well. Initially, I had talks with the organization about keeping anonymous. That was through some advice we got from India Child Services, but they have come to embrace the film and will be using it in their own way to do fundraising.
And you’ve actually said that all proceeds from the film will go to HIV/AIDS-related charities, including to the children in the film. Since it’s quite generous, how did that decision come about?
Filming some of the events and being so close to the people, emotionally – when I got there and really started understanding and seeing what Rocky was doing and how responsible he was with different donations that friends had given him, I just felt more connected. I hadn’t really helped him that much financially before I went and to be honest, I didn’t care about AIDS before I went. If somebody asked me, I’d be like, “Oh, yeah, yeah, AIDS is terrible” and I could say that, but I never did anything to help the fight. I really felt terrible because I was like I could have been doing so much more.
Walking away from everything, I just had this desire for this film to help. I don’t want to start a movement where I’m asking everybody to donate, so I just decided to take on the responsibility of turning the film into something that will generate money on its own. That will be my way of helping and connecting.
Our hope is that the proceeds from the film would be enough to take care of the needs that we have in sight that Rocky has been developing and planning [for] and to be able to connect that with other people that are fighting AIDS and trying to make a difference. It’s not just these kids at this home in India. There’s children all around the world that are suffering, and not just children. These other organizations that we’re partnered with have connections to those causes and to those efforts, and we want to support them.
“Blood Brother” is now open at the Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles and is available to screen in your city through Tugg.