Pittsburgh-area filmmakers win two top Sundance Film Festival awards

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It was a week marked by quiet, communal sobbing, invites to lavish parties, jubilation and the promise that a man and a movie can make a difference a world away.

"Blood Brother," a documentary made by Pittsburghers about Rocky Braat, a onetime resident of Geneva-on-the-Lake, Ohio, and Pittsburgh who jettisoned creature comforts for an orphanage for children with HIV and AIDS in India, had won not one but two prestigious honors at the Sundance Film Festival.

It captured the grand jury prize and the audience award for U.S. documentaries and earned enthusiastic reviews from entertainment trade publications such as Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.

"Blood Brother" is the story of the man children call "Rocky Anna," which means brother in Tamil, who endures a daily diet of rice, a rat-infested hut and visa problems that periodically bounce him back to the States.

The movie's press materials describe him this way: "He suffers with the children. He counts out the pills for them in the morning. He is an amateur dentist, clown, teacher, friend and father to the children."

Today, director Steve Hoover (his best friend) and producer Danny Yourd are in California for the next stop on the movie merry-go-ground: The Santa Barbara International Film Festival. At the same time, Mr. Yourd is fielding offers for the international and domestic rights to distribute the movie.

They were traveling Monday and could not be reached for comment. But in a blog post, Mr. Hoover wrote to supporters: " ... I can't thank you enough for caring, donating, tweeting, posting, sharing and everything else you did to bring 'Blood Brother' to this point.

"By participating in this, you have taken part in something big. Lives will be changed, saved, blessed, improved and restored as a result of your generosity. Please think about that for a minute. We are making a difference."

A film festival serves multiple purposes: It not only garners publicity for a movie and, ideally, positive reviews, but also industry players who want to distribute it in theaters, on demand, cable, broadcast TV, DVD or through other methods.

"There are a couple of good, wonderful contenders," said Michael Killen, a co-owner of the Pittsburgh-based Animal Inc., a production and visual effects studio. It produced the movie and employs most of the crew, including Mr. Hoover and Mr. Yourd.

He and a dozen others were in Park City, Utah, for the Jan. 20 premiere at Prospector Square Theater and question-and-answer session that followed.

"We filled up a 20-seat section," Mr. Killen said. "It was a very emotional premiere. In fact, there was a moment after one of the dramatic parts of the movie, there was just a beat of silence between another scene starting and you could definitely hear -- it's the first time I've ever heard -- the whole room behind me in tears.

"It was actually a strange sound, to just hear everybody as a group sobbing slightly before it moved on to the next section," he said.

Afterward, a Sundance moderator called Mr. Hoover and Mr. Yourd to the stage and Mr. Yourd summoned everyone else, with Mr. Braat the last one to join the gang.

"There's something very personal and touching about this that is making it stand out," Mr. Killen said on Monday.

"It's coming from Steve Hoover, the director, and Danny, too, and, of course Rocky, but Steve in particular has such a kind, curious point of view of the world, and it's coming through in this. This has to be the least jaded film that went through Sundance."

Dennis Harvey of Variety wrote: "Documentaries don't come any bigger-hearted than 'Blood Brother,' a highly worked yet non-manipulative first feature for Steve Hoover that requires no string-pulling to achieve its inspirational impact."

The three principals went to the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, and Mr. Braat and Mr. Hoover were roommates in a hole in the wall place on Bates Street in Oakland. It was so hot that Mr. Braat would lie, immobilized and in his underwear, in front of the apartment's only fan.

So plans to move to India seemed improbable, at the start.

Mr. Braat gave up a promising career as a graphic designer to help at an orphanage in India. After repeated invites, Mr. Hoover decided to go to India and make a documentary about his best friend, inspired in part by two years' worth of blog postings and evocative, emotional photographs.

Roughly $15,000 for travel expenses for a crew of six was raised largely through Kickstarter, and, once in southeastern India, the filmmakers slept on the cement floor of Mr. Braat's hut in the center of the village for a month in early 2011. Mr. Hoover returned in October 2011 for another 20 days.

The movie and a beautiful companion book ($40 through animalmediagroup.com) were always designed to support the work in India.

"We've put this together with no debt, and that's a testament to the people who work here and those guys," said Mr. Killen, in partnership with co-owners Kathy Dziubek and Jim Kreitzburg. "From the filmmakers' end, nobody's taking anything from it," he added, and any money will go toward the orphanage where Mr. Braat lives.

Mr. Killen and many of the others were back in Pittsburgh by the time the Sundance awards ceremony was held Saturday night, but most were watching it being streamed online.

"We were all texting and talking to each other right up to it," he said. "When it won the audience award, which was the first award given under U.S. documentary, we were all thrilled and it was basically a texting-cell phone celebration among everybody," including Mr. Hoover and Mr. Yourd.

"This is incredible. This means so much to so many kids," Mr. Hoover said from the stage alongside Mr. Yourd, Mr. Braat and editor-writer Tyson VanSkiver.

The director issued a series of thank-yous to the festival, its audience, the people in Pittsburgh, Animal Inc., Morgan Spurlock, who shared advice with the filmmakers, "a true brother" in Rocky, and God.

Everyone thought that was it -- which was enough. "For it to win the audience award was more than anybody could hope for, considering there were 16 documentaries under the U.S. competition," Mr. Killen said. "We felt like it was an award just to be at Sundance, for it to achieve the audience award, we all kind of exploded."

As the show progressed, no one thought "Blood Brother" would double down in the best way possible. When Davis Guggenheim, the Oscar-winning director of "An Inconvenient Truth," began describing the winner of the U.S. grand jury prize for documentary, Mr. Killen's attention returned to full bore and he recognized "Blood Brother."

"I think we were all so blown away by the fact that it won both of those awards. ... We hoped, hoped, hoped it would win one of those two awards. For it to win both was just remarkable, absolutely remarkable."

It's too early to know if or when Pittsburghers will be able to see the finished movie, a decision that could depend on the distributor. In the meantime, "Blood Brother" will be back on screen today and Wednesday at the Santa Barbara event.

Go to www.bloodbrotherfilm.com to watch the preview or learn how to help.

"Blood Brother" is a Red Hot Organization, Act V and Light presentation of an Animal production.

Its key credits: executive producers, Steve Hoover, Leigh Blake, John Carlin; director, Mr. Hoover; producer, Danny Yourd; editing, Mr. Hoover, Tyson VanSkiver; writers, Mr. Hoover, Mr. VanSkiver and Phinehas Hodges; cinematography, John Pope; opening animation, Kris Boban; color and finishing, Allan Stallard; sound design, Dallas Taylor; and co-executive producers, Kathy Dziubek, Jim Kreitzburg, Michael Killen, Terry Engel, Ray Pronto, Thomas Chaffee, TDWP.

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Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies


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