Students in Richard Grossman’s Film and Society class at Minnesota School of Business-Richfield (MSB) recently had an opportunity to screen a documentary made by local filmmaker Chris Newberry. Even better, he hung around to discuss the filmmaking process and answer questions from the students.
“American Heart” is a story about the American healthcare system as experienced by refugees in this country. It has been screened at the Social Justice Film Festival, the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival, aired on Twin Cities Public Television, and it recently won a regional Emmy award, among other prizes.
After showing the 96 minute film, Chris began the discussion by explaining to the students that he “caught the bug” for filmmaking after taking film classes as an undergraduate at Northwestern University. He went on to pursue a Master of Arts degree in feature filmmaking from the University of London. Based out of Minneapolis, he has been able to make a career of filmmaking ever since.
“American Heart” is Chris’s first foray into unscripted filmmaking. He had the idea for this film after his wife, who works in healthcare, introduced Chris to a doctor who works at the clinic featured in the film. The clinic, located in St. Paul, caters exclusively to Minnesota’s refugee population.
The clinic gave Chris nearly unfettered access to patients (with the patient’s consent, of course) and clinic appointments. After hours of shooting, Chris decided to focus on the three particular patients we see in the film. Chris explained that the criteria he used to select the “stars” of the film were that they needed to be charismatic, willing and comfortable in front of the camera, and have a complex health situation. Chris said, “In Alex and Patrick [two of the three stories we follow in the film], I got lucky — in their DNA, they are natural storytellers.”
Two of the three men in the film were hospitalized at Regions Hospital. The staff there were also very accommodating in allowing Chris to film. “They eventually got comfortable enough to let me do my thing,” he said.
Chris explained that the stories we see took seven years to film. For two of those years, he edited even as he was still shooting. It wasn’t until he had been filming at the clinic for one year that he met the movie’s protagonists. In the end, he had 185 hours of footage. His original edit of the film was two hours and 15 minutes. Chris stated, “It’s always tricky, deciding what to leave in and what to leave out. Editing can be a painful, but cathartic, process.”
We’ll learn more in Part II!