Do Christian Films Like 'Blood Brother' Face Heightened Scrutiny?

Reviews
by Sam Adams
November 7, 2013 11:00 AM
19 Comments
  • |

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.

Reviews
  • |

More: From the Wire, Blood Brother

You might also like:

19 Comments

  • kirstie | March 9, 2014 7:53 AMReply

    If an organization is soliciting donations, as apparently Rocky's home for HIV kids is, we have a right to know his religious beliefs and whether the aim is to convert the children. I am Christian, by the way but not evangelical, and I do believe they purposefully misled people. I've since heard from a couple of volunteers who tell me that it is very much a Christian organization. When I wrote Rocky (I found him on Facebook) and tried to ask some very simple questions (I myself was considering donating at the time), my comments were deleted and no one bothered to write me back except a volunteer. She did tell me the organization he volunteered with, Hope International, owned the house and the land but was cagey about what other role it has. I still don't understand exactly what Rocky does. is he head of this organization? Is he just a cheer leader for the kids? House manager? I'm not questioning his love for the children in any way. But they are getting huge amounts of donations from this, and I'm sure many, many people would like to know the truth. When they are so evasive, it calls into question a lot of things.

  • Nick Estelle | November 18, 2013 1:31 PMReply

    Creed? Really?

  • A.C. | November 18, 2013 12:31 AMReply

    As a filmmaker who comes from a Christian background, I definitely understand the desire to hide any association with Christianity when you are trying to work in the film industry. I shudder when movies like "Fireproof" are made and shown as examples of "Christian Filmmaking" when I find them neither be good filmmaking nor reflective of my views on Christianity.
    American Christians - such as myself - know that many people who would also call themselves "American Christians" are loud, obnoxious, arrogant, and socially destructive (homophobic, misogynistic and ignorant are three descriptors that come to mind). It is for this reason - and, as the excellent Indiewire article suggests, a fear of journalist attacks such as Roston's - that we avoid mentioning our "Christian" roots. Not because we have something devious to hide, but because we know the baggage associated with the term "Christian" will close doors and cause people to judge us instead of the merit of our work.
    Thanks for this thought-provoking article, Sam.

  • Daniel Walber | November 12, 2013 12:58 PMReply

    When a film is about an evangelical Christian working for free at an AIDS orphanage in India, run by a Christian organization, in the context of Christian aid organizations often exacerbating the AIDS crisis by advocating abstinence-only education, then it deserves more scrutiny. When the film goes out of its way to hide this, refusing to even name the orphanage, it deserves even more scrutiny.

  • DL | November 13, 2013 3:39 AM

    Yes, I watched the film at Sundance earlier this year and was left feeling similarly to you about Rocky, but also similarly to the responses by Roston and others where it felt like a few pieces were off about the film for me (especially the whole cagey way they depicted Rocky's bride-to-be).

    I don't really have an opinion on whether or not Hoover is telling the truth about his evangelism. My point was that when his evangelical ties did pop up after some research into the documentary's context, I think it's completely valid to scrutinize it. But NOT because it is a religious issue, but rather because it is an issue that would seem obviously relevant to the subject matter in the film (i.e. why Rocky/Hoover might have gone over there). It just so happens that it IS an evangelical issue that's the relevant connection.

    While I agree no documentary can capture every aspect of what they are documenting, I think if you leave out significant facts that are closely tied to the core subject, I think it would also be valid to critique the film as misleading. Not saying it's the case here with BB.

  • Sammuel | November 12, 2013 9:41 PM

    The conversation about what a documentary has to include in a 90 minute format is definitely an interesting one. The limitation of scope is one of the most useful tools a filmmaker has, since no doc could ever capture the entire truth of a situation.

    Do you think Hoover is lying about being an evangelical? I haven't come across many secret evangelicals. They tend to evangelize their beliefs pretty loudly, thus the name. Have you watched the film? I'd be curious to your reaction about the characters. Rocky's not someone who really appealed to me, but I felt that actually made the film stronger. It challenged my preconceptions of a white designer 20 something in India.

  • DL | November 12, 2013 7:13 PM

    I definitely don't agree with assuming someone's complete motives based on their religious views, as you say. However, if there are facts and contexts that can be highly relevant to the subject material of a documentary and are either left out or potentially coloring the documentation, why isn't it fair to ask questions about it?

    It wasn't until Hoover's blog post that it's revealed that he doesn't consider himself an evangelical and thus diminishing the effect his belief system/church background had. And whether or not you believe him, the fact is, that piece of information wouldn't have come out unless people asked questions regarding it.

    It might have been artistically difficulty for Hoover, but I think it's legitimate to expect him to at least address relevant issues in a documentary (as I've said, something you expect to be real and honest), especially given the knowledge out there of highly evangelical church organizations. To not do so seems misleading.

  • Sammuel | November 12, 2013 1:53 PM

    Yeah, I wouldn't argue that Christian films in general are getting a bad deal. Have you read Hoover's defense? I think people have gotten the wrong idea about this film in particular. I don't think you can assume someone's complete motives based on your perception of their religious views.

  • Daniel Walber | November 12, 2013 1:40 PM

    I'm aware that he isn't pushing abstinence, but I would argue that on such a sensitive issue, context around Christian activism in AIDS-afflicted places would be helpful. I came out of Blood Brother with many more questions around how Rocky and this orphanage operate than answers.

    Additionally, naming the orphanage is perhaps not necessary but obscuring the fact that it's part of an organization affiliated with the International Churches of Christ seems odd to me. These things are often very complicated, as we saw already this year with God Loves Uganda, and the role of American Christians in the Global South is already a whole can of worms that doesn't get enough genuine interest, fair or otherwise.

    The notion that somehow Christian filmmakers are the ones getting a raw deal here is a problematic one. Given that it seems important to this blog to have a larger conversation about Christian artists and their work, I'd be remiss if I didn't at least try to point out the wider context of evangelical involvement in the same part of the world. Especially when it is so difficult to get people talking about the wider history and current status of AIDS, re: Dallas Buyers Club.

  • Sammuel | November 12, 2013 1:05 PM

    2 facts that might be interesting to you:

    1. Rocky isn't doing any abstinence only work. That's a big assumption
    2. The orphanage isn't named because of a direct request by the orphanage to protect the kids safety. If you're genuinely interested in being fair, read Steve's response on blood brother's blog.

  • DL | November 11, 2013 5:02 PMReply

    I believe it's a valid debate whether Christian artists should get as much scrutiny as they get, but not in the case of the documentary "Blood Brother", with the key word being "documentary".

    Based on Roston's findings, the belief system in which the main character had been at least somewhat immersed in is definitely correlated to the subject matter of the film. Not only that, but the director, who is also of at least that same immersion, injected himself into the documentation which also relates to his reporting. I think to leave this aspect out of a documentary is misleading, if not outright disingenuous.

    And I want to debate the idea that people are scrutinizing this because they think Hoover is doing something "nefarious". I personally don't think he meant to do it as an intentionally shady act. In fact, I won't claim to know the actual reasons for their choice in doing this at all--whether commercial, artistic, or personal.

    But leaving out something that is pretty relevant seems to go against the spirit of documentaries and the depiction and reporting of something real and honest.

  • Keith | November 8, 2013 2:44 AMReply

    Circling back to the original question in the article title: The answer is Yes. They do. Is that fair? No, not really. But western culture breaks out in a rash anytime a Christian tries to do something - anything- and does not hide their faith's role in that action. The pressure to compartmentalize one's Christian faith is intense. "But Christians have done bad things!" Agreed. And it sucks that they did. But because of that now every Christian film needs to be filtered through that lens? It's intellectually lazy, regardless of how in vogue the practice may be.

  • Paul | November 12, 2013 6:01 PM

    This, exactly. Eloquently put.

  • balashi | November 7, 2013 2:56 PMReply

    As a 40-year old who grew up Christian, it is both shocking and scary how far anti-Christian sentiment has come. In my childhood in the early 80s, there was no fear whatsoever identifying yourself as Christian. And we would read about Christians being persecuted both in history, and in modern times - but those were always "other generations" or "other places." But I have lived to see the sentiment shift, and the spirit of animosity and malevolence that is ramping up toward the church today is truly frightening. What I once thought was never possible now seems almost inevitable - the day when I and others like me will be subject here in America to violence and death at the hands of the anti-religious, as is happening in so many other nations around the globe. One only need look at Nazi Germany to see how it happens - Germany didn't wake up one morning and just decide to kill off as many Jews as possible. No, it was a decades long effort that began with turning Jews into the butt of jokes and ridicule - an effort which is already decades old here in the West against Christians. I shudder to think of the world my daughters are growing up in.

  • Asher Gelzer-Govatos | November 7, 2013 2:44 PMReply

    I think what makes this case especially hard is separating out the truth from the hype surrounding the idea of Christian missions. There certainly is a mixed history there, and I don't want to downplay the darker aspects of that history (things usually get especially dark when the missionaries are somehow tied to state power). There is also, however, a tendency to read into any action taken by a Christian (especially of the evangelical variety) some sort of ulterior motive. You see this in the recent furor over Christian adoption, where hysterical people seem convinced that the only possible reason Christians are adopting is to ensure the conversion of foreign children. This is simply not true in any meaningful sense. Most Christians feel motivated, in both scenarios, by the sense of calling they have to love and serve others. In the case of adoption this often looks like adopting special needs children who live in societies where they will likely fall through the cracks (btw I'm in general not a huge fan of foreign adoptions, for a variety of reasons; I just think it's unfair to paint people's motivations in such a bleak light). In terms of missionary work it means a dedication to the common good of the people being visited. Most long term missionaries go in some sort of medical or educational capacity. The missions that go explicitly for the purposes of conversion tend to be very separate from those others. Not saying that people don't go on medical or educational missions with some intent to engage locals with an eye to conversion, but that usually takes a backseat to the actual purposes. The vision of missionaries bribing people to convert with technology is largely a myth. Especially as more and more Protestants adopt a more Catholic view of loving your neighbor (i.e., the idea of a "faithful presence" rather than explicit calls to convert), it seems misguided to assume sinister motives.

    In a broader sense I think the question of whether a Christian's faith should be scrutinized to understand their work is a complex one. In one sense, without a doubt, YES. For most culturally engaged Christians, their faith is a vital part of their core being, and will inevitably show itself in their work, even in explicitly religious ways. What would Flannery O'Connor's short stories be devoid of their explicitly Christian spiritual fire? Or, indeed, the films of Malick? On the other hand, no honest Christian artist sets out to create art for the sake of converting others. There has of course been a tendency towards this, at least in some circles. But those people seem to be receding more into the background (and have historically been an anomaly anyway, very much a product of American Protestant Christianity and not Christianity per se). Should a Christian be suspect because he or she seeks to present Christian themes in their work? Then we should by equal measure be suspect of works by people like Woody Allen, whose Jewish background (and subsequent rejection of that background in favor of a relatively nihilistic atheism) comes through quite strongly in his work. Allen is no more trying to "convert" his audience than Malick is: both seek to present life honestly as they struggle with it. That's what makes them both great artists, and worth watching. I guess a much simpler version of my argument is simply to say that it's pretty obvious when Christians do things with the intent of converting those around them, so we don't need to devote tons of energy trying to sniff around and detect secret Christian intentions. No one's going to mistake Malick for "I'm in Love with a Church Girl."

  • Paula Bernstein | November 7, 2013 12:13 PMReply

    Not sure it's fair to suggest "It wouldn't be surprising if donations to the Kickstarter that helped finance Blood Brother came largely from evangelical Christians" without more info.

  • Christopher Campbell | November 7, 2013 11:09 AMReply

    I try to ask these questions all the time, of this and of those "another" films too. With this film I was mostly surprised nobody else had wondered. And I had just seen God Loves Uganda so the idea of negative aspects of Christian ministry in these sorts of stories was on my mind. It's definitely not my main criticism of the film itself.

  • Christopher Campbell | November 7, 2013 3:42 PM

    I didn't say it was propaganda. I asked and said I don't think so. I don't see where I used the word "covert" about that scene either. I say the mention of him saying God saved the kid as enough of a hint while noting how weird it was to invoke religion in such a way after dismissing the local's religion and prayer as treatment.

    I only raised the questions which then have expanded into a larger discussion, and it is one I find interesting more than necessary -- except in the probably unfair concern for Braat's views on AIDS prevention, which I admit are the fault of thinking too much of the other film.

    In the end, my issues with the film are about context and a sense of avoidance in general and dismissal of certain answers, in the film and at one particular Q&A I've watched online. But the idea now about leaving out Christianity because people would judge that side of it makes a lot of sense. I don't know if the filmmakers shouldn't have just been true to themselves rather than worrying about the reaction of the audience, but if they're intentionally avoiding it for whatever their reasons it leads to a movie with empty spots.

  • Sam Adams | November 7, 2013 11:15 AM

    Fair enough. But I'm not clear how a film that barely mentions Christianity can be propaganda, nor if, as you say in your review, Rocky says at one point that God saved a child's life, how that's "covert."

Email Updates