In a post on his Doc Soup blog, Tom Roston asks “Is a Filmmaker’s Personal Life Relevant to a Film?” But his article on Blood Brother — which, I should state at the outset, I have not seen — leaves me asking a different question: Are Christian filmmakers unfairly stigmatized?
Blood Brother, which won Sundance’s top documentary prize, follows American Rocky Braat as he cares for HIV-infected children in India, and in the course of the film, to use Roston’s words, “transforms from an alienated young man to one finding himself though loving and being loved by the children.” What it apparently doesn’t mention is that Braat and director Steve Hoover are both members of the Greater Pittsburgh Church of Christ, and that the International Church of Christ lays claim to the film as a “disciple-made documentary.”
Roston was tipped off to Hoover and Braat’s religious affiliation by Christopher Campbell’s review at Nonfics, where he writes “Many will see Blood Brother as primarily a film about Braat and about the kids. They’ll see him as a selfless, saintly character and the orphans as being in need. And maybe it won’t bother anyone to know that he’s basically a Christian missionary who has been converting the kids.”
The “basically” is where I get stuck. There’s a long, often inglorious history of white Christian missionaries traveling to other countries and “converting” the natives, either through bribery or force: You can have this medicine after I better see you in church. But there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that Braat was part of an organized mission, apart from a statement by mutual friends that “Many of the teens have become Christians by [Braat’s] example and leadership in the community.”
Roston finds it suspicious that Hoover’s IMDb page doesn’t mention the video he directed for a Christian rock band, and the Church of Christ’s website doesn’t tout its connection to the film. Hoover explains himself to Roston, saying, “What I created, and what Rocky did, was completely independent of the church,” but Roston smells a rat. “There are pieces in Blood Brother that appear to be missing, manipulated or hidden because I believe Hoover didn’t want certain facts to be known.”
Even if one agrees that Hoover worked to keep his Christianity a secret — and it’s possible, that journalists like the one who wrote this piece on the film for Pittsburgh Magazine, simply didn’t ask the right questions — there’s a plausible, non-nefarious reason for it, which is to avoid being the subject of articles like Roston’s. Born-again Christians know, or at any rate believe, that their faith alienates many people, especially in the realm of popular culture, so they learn to speak in code: bands like Creed weave scriptural themes into their lyrics, but deny that they’re a Christian band, because seeing seen as a bunch of Bible-thumpers drastically limits their potential audience. They hide in plain sight, the way George W. Bush peppered his speeches with Biblical allusions that could be easily read by the faithful and easily overlooked by the rest.
It’s always important to know where a documentary filmmaker — or any filmmaker — is coming from, and where their funding comes from. It wouldn’t be surprising if donations to the Kickstarter that helped finance Blood Brother came largely from evangelical Christians, but it’s also significant that the film wasn’t directly financed by the church. Roston is absolutely right to ask these kinds of questions about Blood Brother, but it’s also fair to wonder why those questions are asked of this film and not another.