Hot Docs Reviews: 'Blood Brother', 'Which Way is the Front Line from Here?', 'The Unbelievers'

Blood Brother
(USA, 93 min.)
Dir. Steve Hoover
Programme: Special Presentations (Canadian Premiere)
Rocky and Surya. Photo Credit: John Pope
Blood Brother won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for US Documentary at Sundance this year, and admiration for the film continued to grow at Hot Docs. I didn’t catch the film until its third screening, yet the theatre was still packed with moviegoers buzzing with excitement. This story of two best friends is an inspiring tale, as director Steve Hoover goes to India to visit his pal, Rocky Braat. Rocky has found a calling in India working in an orphanage for children with AIDS. It’s a difficult occupation, as Rocky seems to balance a tightrope walk between life and death every day.

Blood Brother is bound to have viewers hooked with its opening scene. Rocky is atop a motorcycle, pleading with a father to let him a young girl to the hospital. The girl lies limp in her father's arms and she looks mere seconds away from death, if she's not there already. Hoover captures the scene with a frantic authenticity. The urgency of Rocky's plea is palpable, and Blood Brother then cuts away to explain what brought Rocky to India. The film leaves one on edge with concern for the girl's fate.

The riveting opening scene of Blood Brother reveals to the audience the heroism of Rocky’s mission in India. One sees a genuine bond between Rocky and the kids at the orphanage. The kids have such affection for Rocky that they lovingly call him “Rocky Anna”, which means “brother.” The term of endearment shows how Rocky connects with the kids by treating them as equals. He looks beyond their illness and engages with them as he would any child in need of aid.

Hoover’s brilliant handling of the opening scene also gives viewers a taste of the bold, unflinching eye with which the camera will train on Rocky’s story throughout the film. Blood Brother arguably offers one of the most undaunted looks at what happens when one suffers from a fatal disease such as AIDS. Blood Brother lets audiences connect with the kids and share Rocky’s fondness for them, but the film then turns from the smiling faces of the children to reveal the devastating effects they suffer through AIDS. Each life and death battle is harder to watch than the last. Blood Brother is especially compelling, though, in that it refuses to offer a sanitized portrait of the disease even though the victims are children. One particularly heartbreaking scene comes late in the film and sees one of the documentary’s most endearing children lying in a hospital bed on the cusp of death as his body breaks out into sores. Rocky’s reaction to the boy’s condition is nothing short of heroic.

Blood Brother, much like the 2005 Oscar winner Born into Brothels, offers an emotionally enthralling tale about the hope and optimism one can inject into a dire situation. One does wish, however, that the kids had been emphasized as the main focus of the project, rather than the American hero. Rocky’s devotion to the children is by all regards commendable, but one risks emerging from the film applauding the valour of its saintly subject rather than asking how one can contribute to the cause to which Rocky is devoted. Petty criticism aside, one can't deny that Rocky's mission makes for a moving film experience. Like Brothels, it’s difficult to detach the subject matter of Blood Brother from one’s opinion of the film itself: this is a worthy topic and it is given commendable treatment. Blood Brother is a top-rate character study, for Rocky’s story is ultimately one of self-sacrifice and altruism. Blood Brother is a deeply affective story of how the actions of one person can bring transcendent change to a whole community.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★) 

UPDATE: Blood Brother screens in Ottawa at The ByTowne on Sept. 5 at 6:45pm. The screening will be presented by the One World Arts Film Festival and all seats are $10.

Which Way is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington
(USA, 78 min.)
Dir. Sebastian Junger
Programme: Special Presentations (Canadian Premiere)
Shortly after his 2010 Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature for Restrepo, filmmaker/photojournalist Tim Hetherington was tragically killed by a mortar strike while covering the conflict in Libya in 2011. Which Way is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington looks at the incredible work of Hetherington and explores how he brought a humanist eye to global conflict. The film shows how Hetherington’s photography showed an understanding for war and conflict that runs much deeper than the sense that most journalists bring to a situation. Hetherington offers a sort of documentary cousin to Rocky from Blood Brother, as both men offer inspiringly selfless devotion to their subjects. Director Sebastian Junger (who co-directed Restrepo with Hetherington) offers an appropriate tribute to Hetherington using an impressive gallery of Hetherington’s beautiful photography, along with interviews with his co-workers and peers, as well as archival footage of Hetherington describing his work and philosophy in his own words. 

Which Way conveys the depth and significance of Hetherington’s work and shows how his eye captured the humanity of war. Seeing the world from a perspective outside that of the typical headlines, his photography brought an artfully humane filter to the brutal conditions of war. Which Way is the Front Line from Here? is a fitting eulogy to an artist who took humanity far beyond the demands of his profession.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★) 

The Unbelievers
(USA, 76 min.)
Dir. Gus Holwerda
Programme: Special Presentations (World Premiere)
I’m so disappointed that I missed the screening of The Unbelievers that featured subjects Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss in a post-screening conversation. I’m not especially familiar with either man’s work, but their ideas and debates in The Unbelievers are utterly fascinating. It would probably have been a once in a lifetime opportunity to engage with such great minds.

The Unbelievers follows the two thinkers as they travel the globe in a speaking tour that seeks to open the minds of people all over the world. Dawkins and Krauss both share an opinion that science should be the foundation for knowledge and belief systems on Earth. The two men trade barbs with other experts in the field and offer an intellectually stimulating debate of science versus religion. Dawkins and Krauss are not afraid to mock the absurdity of dogmatic piety as a trump card for empirical proof. Atheism isn’t a dirty word in The Unbelievers: it’s treated as synonymous with clear-headed rationality.

Dawkins and Krauss are both highly engaging speakers who avoid esoteric intellectualism and articulate big ideas into common vernacular. They don’t numb their message down, and Dawkins and Krauss grasp that the common public can handle questions far more complex than those for which academics can usually give them credit. Liberals and freethinkers will find The Unbelievers a master class in contemporary philosophy.

There is ample material for a truly mind-blowing film experience, so it’s disappointing that director Gus Holwerda doesn’t make the most of his strong premise. The documentary is essentially cut together as a filmed conversation. The Unbelievers could have engaged the theories of Dawkins and Krauss with case studies from past and present to let viewers debate how science or religion have shaped the course of history, and how a preference for one over the other could be the ultimate change of course for human progress. Why not examine a controversial event like, say, 9/11 to see if science or religion charts the most rational course for civilization? (One attendee of an event carries a sign that reads, “Science flies to the moon, religion flies into buildings,” so the historical milestone could have been easily introduced.) The Unbelievers also affords little time to speakers on the side of the debate for religion, aside from one ignorant conversation partner for Dawkins and a few shots of fanatical fundamentalists. An argument is twice as persuasive when it anticipates a counter-argument and offers a rebuttal.

The Unbelievers is nevertheless a thought-provoking piece about how we should conceptualize the contemporary world. The film offers ideas that need to be circulated and debated, so perhaps the effectiveness of its scant seventy-six minutes is that it leaves the conversation to be picked up by viewers once the film is over. Put your thinking cap on and prepare for an evening of intelligent conversation with The Unbelievers.

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)