Rocky Braat was looking for something more in life and found it in a place of immense hardship.
Lacking a close-knit family, he gave up a career as a graphic designer in Pittsburgh to go to India in 2008 and live with children at an HIV/AIDS orphanage near Chennai.
Despite being abandoned by their families, they have learned to love. The kids call him "Rocky anna," a term of endearment meaning big brother.
"The treasure was the kids ... they gave their heart to me and I gave my heart to them," Braat said in the documentary film "Blood Brother" that tells his story.
The film, made by his best friend, Steve Hoover of Cambria County, will be screened at 8 p.m. Oct. 19 in Seton Hill University Theater's Carol Reichgut Concert Hall in Greensburg. The critically acclaimed film, which won the documentaries grand prize and audience award at the Sundance Film Festival, has Oscar potential, reviewers said.
Hoover, 30, of the North Side and his crew of filmmakers quickly learned to appreciate the harshness of life in a Third World country when they followed Braat to make the film. They slept on the floor, fended off rats and ate with their hands.
"It changed my perspective," Hoover said. "Generally, comfort is the flip of a switch for us."
They were advised to travel light.
"Rocky told us, 'People come and try to re-create America here. ... If you do that, you're going to miss it.'"
The two met while attending the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. Hoover is the youngest of five children who grew up in Patton in Cambria County; Braat was the son of a drug- addicted mother with abusive boyfriends who was raised in Geneva-on-the-Lake, Ohio, by his grandfather.
Art Institute graphic design instructor Steve Butler remembers Braat well.
"You always remember the inquisitive students," said Butler, 48, of South Fayette. "He always had a lot of questions. He was very outgoing, very curious, wanting to know as much as he could."
Initially surprised by Braat's decision to move to India, Butler said he came to understand the attraction for his former student.
"In hindsight, looking at Rocky and the way he was always exploring, always asking questions, it made a lot of sense," he said.
Hoover showed an interest in photography from an early age, said his aunt, Eileen Paul, 50, of Irwin.
"He always had a camera at family gatherings," she said.
Braat, described by friends as a talented musician and artist, has published "I Was Always Beautiful," a book of his photography and stories from India. Proceeds from the book go to help further his work with the children.
While he surprised his friends when he quit his job and went traveling, even more unexpected was his decision to sell his possessions and return to India to live, Hoover said.
"I sold everything I had and went (back) with a suitcase of toys," Braat said in the film.
Today he lives a very simple life in a rural village.
"I can't truly understand the people I serve if I allow myself the luxuries they can't have," he wrote in a blog.
His projected monthly expenses for food, gas and phone come to about $145.
Braat's journey has not been without heartache; early on, they buried three children from the orphanage.
Braat and Hoover hope to use money generated by the film to build halfway houses for the orphans and to help them start small businesses. Drug advances mean more of them are living longer, but they face difficulties when they leave the orphanage in finding and keeping jobs.
"We want to be engaged with the kids after they leave," Hoover said. "What good will all this be if they go off and die?"
Braat is teaching the children photography, a skill they can turn into jobs there.
The Carol Reichgut Concert Hall is at 100 Harrison Ave. Proceeds from the screening will benefit Braat and the orphanage.
Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or email@example.com.
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