|Director Chris Newberry|
In the closing days of 2005, I was introduced to an extraordinary group of people. It was a serendipitous case of a filmmaker (me) looking for a project and a project looking for a filmmaker. I sat down across the table from Dr. Pat Walker, Dr. Bill Stauffer, and author Biloine Young. Little did I know that these extraordinary people would soon be taking me on a 7-year journey into a whole world populated by extraordinary people.
The original pitch given to me by Drs. Walker and Stauffer was “every patient that walks through our doors has an amazing story to tell” and “don’t you think there’s a documentary film here?”. As it turns out, there were several documentary films. Together, we embarked on what would become known as the Medicine Box Project, in which we documented the health care ups-and-downs of the patients at HealthPartners Center for International Health. The clinic’s patient population consists entirely of immigrants, with a substantial number being the refugees living in the surrounding Midway neighborhoods of St. Paul, MN. These refugees come to Minneapolis/St. Paul from all over the world, and the metro area boasts one of the most robust and diverse contingents of refugees in North America.
The clash that arises when an influx of newcomers arrives in a place like Minnesota—in the “American heartland”—is nothing new, but it comes into clear focus when these newcomers interact with complex American institutions, and no institution is more complex than the American health-care system.
Over the course of several years, the Medicine Box Project spawned four short documentaries, all of which are widely used in health-care education and outreach, but I knew I wanted to do something more with the material. I had always wanted to tell a personal story of real individuals—something that the public at large could appreciate and be touched by. I wanted to make a feature-length documentary and thus began the making of what that would become American Heart. So, I turned my attention to “casting”—that is, seeking out a handful of patients whose stories could be told in an intimate way.
The stars aligned when, in a matter of a few months in 2007, I met three men that would open up their lives to me: Alex Gliptis, a refugee who fled violence in Ethiopia in the early 1980s; Patrick Junior, a member of an oppressed ethnic minority (the Karen people) in Burma; and Thor Lem, a former political prisoner who suffered under the Khmer Rouge in 1970s Cambodia.
Each one of them had a backstory filled with harrowing journeys and heart-breaking loss—the kinds of heavy burdens that a person carries with himself or herself for a lifetime. But that is not all that connects these three men. They also face, over the course of the film, a jaw-dropping series of life-threatening health emergencies. This may sound like the makings for an exposé of the health-care system’s failings. And at times, it seemed like I might be documenting the health care fits-and-starts that would inevitably lead to three unhappy endings.
On the contrary, although what my team and I eventually captured in the film was certainly an emotional roller-coaster ride, it was not a story of failure or hopelessness. Instead, it is a story filled with gripping moments of perseverance and recovery buoyed by the power of family and the compassion of dedicated health-care providers.
I’ve had the privilege to show American Heart to audiences all over the country, and it has proven to pull on some heartstrings and is always a conversation starter. I hope everyone who is able to catch the film at the CSWE Film Festival will come away with a new outlook when it comes to the refugees that have found their way to America—I know I certainly have.