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Film illustrates health care through refugees' eyes

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'American Heart'
The documentary "American Heart" follows the lives of refugees, like Alexander Gliptis, as they seek health care in Minnesota.
Photo courtesy Chris Newberry

For the past seven years, Twin Cities filmmaker Chris Newberry has been documenting the lives of refugees as they try to navigate the health care system in Minnesota. 

Their stories will hit the big screen Thursday night as part of the  Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival. 

Filmmaker Chris Newberry started out as a screenwriter, a purveyor of fictional tales. But some stories, he says, just call for the reality of documentary. 

"You're not writing a script about Abraham Lincoln and then dressing someone up like Abraham Lincoln and filming that," said Newberry. "That is really cool, but to actually be witnessing the story as it actually plays out, to be able to tell stories from real life, it just scratches that itch for me. I get to find out more about the world around me." 

That was the case with Newberry's latest project. His film, "American Heart," follows the lives of three refugees as they seek health care in Minnesota. 

Patrick is a Karen refugee from Burma who loves writing songs and sleeps with his guitar. He insists on smiling even when hooked up to the rows of machines monitoring his heart condition. 

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Thor survived Cambodia's killing fields, but is now dying from liver cancer. 

Then there's Alex, who, in the early 1980s, fled the violence of his Ethiopian homeland. He walked for two years straight, avoiding flying bullets and packs of hungry hyenas, to reach safety in Sudan. 

"Sometimes it's kind of a dream," Alex says in the film. "Am I really in the United States? All these years, all this depression and all this medication I'm taking, and I'm still having dreams about the past." 

Alex is now an American citizen living a relatively peaceful life. He no longer fears he'll be assassinated by Ethiopian troops in the night. But, says filmmaker Chris Newberry, there are now other threats to Alex's life. 

"His health has been deteriorating," said Newberry. "He's got diabetes. He is a recovering alcoholic. He's a smoker. He has heart disease. Then he's got all his mental health challenges,"  like depression and PTSD. 

A doctor in the film explains the complex interplay between past trauma and current well being. 

"This is a brief window into what the refugee experience is like for some people."

"They bring many memories of war, of rape," says the doctor. "And that dramatically affects their health. The two are connected -- depression and physical health -- and they can stay with you your whole life." 

Luckily, says Chris Newberry, there are places like HealthPartners Center for International Health in St. Paul, which caters specifically to immigrants and refugees. It's there that much of the film takes place. 

The health clinic provides both physical and mental health care. It employs countless translators. And, says Newberry, it tries to respect the cultural practices of the patients' home countries, even when they differ from American norms. 

"In a lot of cultures giving someone the news they have a terminal illness -- maybe the doctor will give the news to one of the adult children of the patient, and then the family will decide whether the patient even gets to know they have cancer," said Newberry. "And that's out of respect for the patient in those cultures." 

The documentary "American Heart" isn't an examination of the country's medical system, and it's not a statement on who should or shouldn't receive health care. The film's goal, says Newberry, is a simple one: to offer a look into the real lives of real people as they face all-too-real health challenges. 

"This is just a brief window into what the refugee experience is like for some people," Newberry said. "Hopefully from that, people might be a little more curious, they might have a little bit more respect for refugees, for what they've been through and what they go through once they're resettled."  

Chris Newberry's "American Heart" premieres at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival on Thursday at 6:30pm.