Western literature is filled with novels, memoirs, and travelogues by and about white men who, seeking adventure or a deeper sense of self, travel the world to some exotic endpoint filled with dusky people who impart spiritual wisdom and share cultural practices that deliver each white man to a more “authentic” version of himself.
He, of course, positions himself—and is celebrated as—the dusky people’s champion and savior. The documentary Blood Brother is the 21st-century hipster remix of this time-honored narrative.
A Sundance Film Festival hit (of course), Blood tracks the journey of twentysomething Pittsburgh native and graphic designer Rocky Braat who, while working in India, stumbled over a home for children with HIV/AIDS and knew he’d found his home and calling. The film, directed by Braat’s longtime friend Steve Hoover (who shot it with a golden-hued vibrancy that makes even poverty look like a blessing), tracks our hero as he doles out medicine, teaches the kids English, leads sing-alongs, roughhouses with his charges, and leads them in chants of “I was always beautiful.”
There are lots of images of him looking forlornly into the camera or off into the distance when he’s not gushing inanities about the spiritual and cultural superiority of his new home. Neither the film nor Braat gives any political, cultural, or historical context or analysis of anything shown onscreen—poverty, beauty, illness. While Braat isn’t the Ugly American, he is its obnoxious cousin, the Clueless Yank. It’s not until late in the film that he bothers to put the home in the context of the larger village that houses it, and that’s only because of the villagers’ bigoted response upon learning that the kids have HIV/AIDS. (Their reaction is appropriately denounced by Braat, but the film tells nothing of how or if the tensions are resolved.)
There are undoubtedly several moving moments in the film, and the kids are gorgeous and heartbreaking, but none of that is strong enough to balance Braat’s galling and enabled narcissism, which pervades the film.