Amir here. When Steve Hoover's debut Blood Brother, won both the audience and jury prizes at this year's Sundance Film Festival, it automatically became one of my most anticipated documentaries of the year. Lucky for me, I didn't have to wait long to see it. Hot Docs brought it to Toronto. Having now seen the film twice, crying through and laughing with it both times, I am confident this is one of the year's best films and deserves all the plaudits that will come its way.
Blood Brother is a personal close-up of the director's best friend, Rocky - affectionately referred to by Indian children as "Rockyanna" - who has spent the past few years living in India in an orphanage where HIV-positive children and women are cared for. It is a character study of a man whose strength, humility and grace are unparalleled. Needless to say, the environment of the film is absolutely heartbreaking, particularly at the climax where we follow the story of a young boy named Surya and his experience with AIDS. What I didn't expect, however, was to leave the film filled not with sadness, but with joy and a new found appreciation for every little moment of my life. Hoover's film is anything but a tear-jerker. It maintains a fine balance between "extreme joy and extreme pain", as he put it, and in that balance finds a way straight to our hearts.
On the occasion of Blood Brother's Hot Docs premiere, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Steve Hoover for a chat. Understandably, most of you haven't had the chance to see it yet and the intimate details of the films discussed here probably won't mean as much to you as they do to me, but this film is an absolute must-watch. I hope you'll seek it out and check back on this interview again then.
AMIR: I’ll admit upfront that I’m a bit jealous of you, both because you’ve made such a wonderful film at such a young age and because you get to be friends with Rocky.
STEVE HOOVER: Thanks! You know, I’m 30. You still have a few years to get here.
AMIR: I’m not optimistic about my chances! But let’s get to your story. I want to ask you a bit about your relationship with Rocky prior to the film...
AMIR: You've been best friends for ten years but by the end, I get the sense that there’s something more. Best friends love and respect each other, as do you, but there’s almost a sense of admiration for him in you. What was the friendship likebefore he left for India?
STEVE: Man… that’s interesting. I always saw us as the same in the past. We’re so close that we’re almost like brothers. Maybe there was even sibling rivalry there, a kind of competitiveness. It wasn’t anything we ever talked about, of course. But you’re right. Going to India, when I first saw what he was doing there and he connected me to all that stuff, my admiration level just shot up. I’d just hear things from him and I’d say “oh, that’s great that you’re doing that.”
And he doesn’t seem like the type of person who’d even bring his accomplishments up in phone calls.
Exactly. When I went there and actually saw it, I realized how humble he’d been about it all. He was just relentless. In my heart, so many times I wanted to check out; like there was a false sense of charity that made me say at the end of a day: “we’ve done our good deed, let’s go relax.” He didn’t have that. He was genuinely concerned about the people all the time. To see somebody do that and realize that you don’t have it in you as much, you can’t help but appreciate what he’s doing and be affected by it. Everybody else had reservations but he didn’t. I’ll never forget certain things. I’d take a small travel pillow with me and he’d sleep with nothing. I’d sleep on the hospital floor and I’d look around at all the filth on the ground and kids being sick and people dying all around me, and I can’t forget how badly I wanted to get out of there in my heart. Rocky told me to stay at a hotel too, but I just couldn’t. You can’t pretend that world doesn’t exist even for a little bit.
This is closer to the end of your time in India, right?
Yeah. And when I was saying goodbye to Rocky the last night, I went outside with my camera to just look on his life. I was looking through a tiny window in the wall and the gravity of everything hit me. I badly wanted to be a part of everything and I was part of it in a different way, but I could never look at it the way he does. I broke down crying, the kids caught wind of it. None of this made it to the film, but they pulled me back in saying “go see Rocky” and I just think I couldn’t look at him then. They took me back in eventually and I think at that moment all I felt was full respect and admiration. I stopped comparing myself to him. [laughing] That’s my really long answer to your question.
It’s interesting you say that because I wondered as I watched the film about the things that didn’t make the final cut. I felt a few times that the gravity of the whole experience was too much for me sitting at home in front of my TV and I was curious what it was like for you. Was it ever too hard to handle? Did you ever want to just shut the camera down and step away from it all?
I had moral battles where I thought to myself: “Should I be filming this? Is it appropriate? Should I put the camera down and just help?” And yeah, very often the situations we were filming were just so tough to handle, and unexpected too. When we filmed the opening scene [where a young girl dies on camera] we were a hundred percent sure she’d survive and we’d get her to the hospital. I was thinking this will be great for the film; we’ve saved a girl’s life. And then to have her death taped on camera was just incredibly difficult.
The moment that completely broke me down in tears was when Surya’s eyes are opened in the hospital, he looks at you and smiles. It’s so innocent and sweet and so difficult to watch.
When Rocky told me on the phone that Surya was in that condition I completely fell apart. My wife was there and she was in tears too. So that was just really cool to get to see Surya again. The kid’s just got such a great heart; so happy to be alive and such a fighter. I’m tearing up talking about it because it was so moving just making eye contact with him then. I couldn’t even tell if he was aware that I was there. Rocky kept telling him “Stevenanna is here. He’s got you gifts.” I just touched his hair and he made eye contact and that was enough for me. We really take all these small things for granted.
Have the kids seen the film?
Yes. My wife and I took it to them in December and the whole orphanage staff saw it there. It was really special. We projected it onto a bed sheet. It was really emotional and they were really moved. The hospital and the orphanage are 1.5 hours apart, so some of them didn’t even know what Surya went through. After seeing the film, they’d started thinking about themselves, wondering what if that kind of thing happened to them. They said it was difficult to watch but they were grateful. Surya just loved it though. I sat by him as we watched it to see his reaction and he was just glowing afterwards. The other kids treated him like a rock star after, like a prominent figure. He’s the little hero of the film.
AMIR: I have a couple of technical questions. For a few stretches during the film, notably the opening scene, I completely forgot that I was watching a documentary. It really feels like a fiction film aesthetically, partly because the cinematography is so slick, but also because it follows continuity editing techniques more than the evidentiary type cutting that we’re used to seeing in most documentaries. Almost every character in the film gets their own intense close-up several times and our interactions with them become so intimate.
Steve: I’ve been together with the team that worked on this film for a very long time. We all come from a commercial and music video background. Eventually we decided that we wanted to bring a sense of great production values to the film, but originally I reacted against that. The parts that are filmed in my house in the US were a bit lazy. I was thinking that this is a documentary and I don’t need a whole crew. I’ll just turn the camera on and set it on Rocky. As things evolved, I wanted the production values to do justice to the beauty of the scenes in India. A lot of the style came together in the editing room though, especially with the vignettes that we’d shot. How and where to insert them was really crucial.
You allow your audience some room to breathe and contextualize the story on their own terms with the vignettes. What about the score? The music seems aware of the fact that it doesn’t need to manufacture emotions. It’s so playful in a way that reflects Rocky’s vivacious character more than anything.
Steve: We talked to a handful of composers that donated music to us. As opposed to giving somebody the film so they could compose to it, I ended up with a database of tracks that I could choose from. So I had control over that aspect of it. The film starts with a serious track, one that I really love, but I wanted to lead into the playfulness, because you know, there had to be a progression. You can’t just say you’ve seen a little girl die on camera, now go out there and play. But with Rocky’s character, he’s so lively that the music had to reflect that. The balance of things was really important for me. It’s important to show that there’s extreme joy in that environment just as much as there is extreme pain and I wanted to reflect that in the music. I didn’t really want to use Indian music either. I love Indian music now but before I went there I didn’t. I thought some people might not like it, which is fine, but I didn’t want them to be turned off a scene because of that. This score is playful but it’s the style of music that a Western audience is maybe more familiar with. I also didn’t want there to be emotional disconnect but I also wanted it to be completely non-manipulative. One conviction I had going into it was that I didn’t want to force emotions onto people or guilt anyone into the film and I got a lot of advice to try to make sure that wasn’t happening.
I want to finish on a lighter note. One of the favorite conversations of Hot Docs attendees every year is trying to predict which films are gonna go on to the Oscars at the year’s end. This year’s consensus seems to be formed around your film and Marta Cunningham’s Valentine Road.
I’ve seen that one. She’s awesome. That’s a great film.
Indeed. Are you excited for that process? I mean, Sundance was already quite a bit of exposure, but all this talk must be really thrilling.
[laughing] I try not to get my hopes up about things like that. The possibility is very interesting because it’s not something I’ve thought about or expect. I read about it here and there but I try not to think about it at all. It will just be a serious letdown if I get my hopes up. I try to stay focused on what’s happening with the film now and my biggest hope is to see people engaging with the film more than awards. That kind of stuff would be huge in terms of the cause of the film and the exposure. Who wouldn’t want that? It’d be absolutely amazing. But I’ve learned in this process that nothing like that is guaranteed so I’ll take it as it goes.
This is such a major achievement for your debut feature and I’m so happy for your success. You mentioned your background in music videos and commercials. Is your next project along that line?
I’m always doing those in between stuff. I worked with a production company called Animal, who have been really supportive of this film. But I’m working on another documentary at the moment actually. It’s all with the same crew. I’m hoping it’ll be done in 2015.
I’m already looking forward to it.