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Director's Journal: Remembering Alex Gliptis

We said goodbye to one of our dear friends this year. Producer-director Chris Newberry shares a personal remembrance.




It is with sadness that we report the passing of Alexander Gliptis. For anyone who has seen American Heart, Alex's warm smile and unshakeable spirit has surely left an indelible mark.

As Dr. Bruce Field memorably states in the film, Alex was "quite a survivor." Alex faced war, persecution, peril in the wilderness, and unspeakable loss, not to mention the countless physical and mental health challenges that continued to chase him throughout his life, long after he settled in the relative security of the United States. However, earlier this month, Alex fought a battle that was ultimately unwinnable, as he suffered a significant stroke which led to yet another prolonged stay in the Regions Hospital ICU. After a series of complications, Alex passed away peacefully with his loving wife Nura at his side.

Alexander Gliptis

I spent countless hours with Alex, in his home and out in the world, filming for American Heart. This lasted about five years, and we wrapped principal production the day Alex and Nura boarded a plane for Ethiopia in 2011. But our relationship was far from over. Alex and Nura remained a big part of my life, as I continued to visit them in St. Paul and help out where I could, for the remaining years of Alex’s life.

When Alex was hospitalized in September of this year, I sat with Nura as she waited to see if a recovery was going to be possible. Ultimately, it was not. As Nura and I – along with Alex's care team and a handful of friends – sat with Alex in what would be the final days of his life, we were met with a meaningful visit by a familiar face

rob osterlund and nura gliptis

Rob Osterlund, a staff chaplain at Regions, stopped in to check on Nura. He had seen Alex’s name on the patient census, and remembered Alex as the fierce survivor who beat the odds and recovered from a cardiac emergency and subsequent brain injury in 2007. Rob had visited with Alex and Nura in the Regions ICU all those years before, and had formed a connection.

In 2007 Rob's visit to Alex's room in the ICU formed a powerful scene in American Heart. This year, just as he had done eleven years earlier, Rob prayed with Nura at Alex’s bedside (pictured left). He spoke eloquently about how God had given Alex a gift – an extra decade on earth to spend with Nura. It was a poignant notion that resonated with everyone in the room.

After Rob left us to continue his good work with other troubled families, and other members of the care team moved on to other duties, the room became quiet. I sat with Nura as Alex took his final breath and passed away at 5:25pm on September 11, 2018.

On September 26, Alex was laid to rest in St. Paul. A group of friends and admirers convened for a memorial service, and I was honored to provide a eulogy. Here is what I said:

Alex was my friend. I've known him since 2005.

I’d like to start by telling you how I met Alex. I’m a documentary filmmaker, and I was making a film about patients at the HealthPartners international clinic. I was looking for some people to follow who had interesting stories and interesting personalities, and one of the first appointments I walked into was Alex’s, with Rob Carlson. Right away I saw there was something special about this guy.

Clock and Calendar at Alex's time of death

I ended up spending the next 5 years filming with him as he told me about his remarkable life.

He told me about how the repressive regime in Ethiopia in the early 1980s had pegged him as a troublemaker, and had murdered his brother. This was just one of the traumatic memories that would continue to haunt him throughout the rest of his life.

He told me about how he escaped Ethiopia, spending 2 years on the run, sometimes finding himself in war zones, sometimes in the wilderness, and eventually made it to Sudan.

He told me about how he met this beautiful Eritrean woman in Sudan, about how they met because of music. He would walk past her apartment and hear the radio playing and it made him want to know more about this woman. He told me about how he and this woman got married and they gained refugee status and resettled in the United States.

He told me about how he became a bus mechanic in St. Paul, and after his health would no longer allow him to work, about how he wanted to return to Ethiopia, to make a difference, to teach young Ethiopians how to survive and be self-sufficient, like him. I later found out that he had written a letter to Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt to request that they help him in his goals. (I don’t think he got a response.)

The film is called American Heart. I was fortunate to show it to thousands of people, in person but also on national television. Many people would come up to me and tell me how much Alex’s story touched them, and in profound ways. One woman approached me after seeing the film, in tears, and explained that her own husband had grown up in a war-torn country and she believed he was living with undiagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression, but she had never talked to him about it. But she was so moved by Alex’s story of seeking treatment for his own PTSD, that she felt compelled to go home and implore her husband to seek help. Alex was remarkably open and brave to appear in the film, and I’m grateful he allowed me to tell his story in such intimate detail.

Another thing I learned was that Alex was a prolific thinker and writer, and he would write down anything interesting that he read or heard. Most of his notes have been sitting in boxes collecting dust in recent years. When he passed away I spent some time going through transcripts of Alex’s writings. I found a couple things I’d like to share you with. Alex had a great sense of humor, and he wrote down jokes. Can I try a joke out on you?

An elderly woman who had been hard of hearing for years purchased a new hearing aid. When she came back to the audiologist for a minor adjustment he said “your friends and relatives must be very pleased that you can hear so well now”. “Oh I haven’t told them” the woman said “I just sit around and listen and do you know what? I changed my will three times.”

He also wrote down poetry that he found meaningful, and one poem in particular I thought does a good job of summing up Alex’s life. You see he was a fighter and a survivor. The poem Invictus by William Ernest Henley. Some of you may know it as the poem that inspired Nelson Mandela as he lived in confinement for years at Robin Island:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.


You can visit Alex's obituary, as published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and add a personal message here.



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"American Heart"
feature-length documentary
copyright Free Country Media