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Director's Journal: Premiere Night, April 18

American Heart was unveiled as a part of the 2013 Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival on Thursday, April 18 at St. Anthony Main Theatre. Here is producer-director Chris Newberry's account of that special night.

SPOILER ALERT!!!: Read only if you have already seen American Heart.




There I was, sitting in my 1999 Volkswagen Jetta on the 3rd Avenue bridge. Traffic was at a standstill. I hadn’t advanced more than a few feet in about ten minutes. I could see the movie theater, but I couldn’t reach it. Heavy snow was falling, coating everything in a thick blanket, perfectly normal for a January day in Minneapolis. Except it wasn’t January, it was April 18th.

American Heart was going to be unveiled at 6:30pm as part of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival, but the late-season blizzard was threatening to derail the momentum that was gathering around the premiere. We had received some great press. Family, friends and supporters had their tickets in hand. We even received word around lunchtime that the screening had already sold out. But… the snow! Travel was becoming pretty treacherous.

While I sat there in my car, less than an hour before showtime, I fielded calls. Most concerning were the calls from Patrick Junior’s family. Patrick is a refugee from Burma, and one of the stars of American Heart. His music and his inspiring story provide a crucial bedrock of heart and soul to the documentary. Patrick had been planning for weeks to attend the premiere, with four loved ones in tow, but he was coming from East St. Paul and the journey through snowbound rush-hour traffic was not going to be easy. I tried to guide them to the theater with verbal directions but I was not optimistic. In fact, I more-or-less recommended that they abort the mission and turn around for home.

MSPIFF covered in snow

And then there was Alex Gliptis. Another star of the movie, Alex, and his wife Nura, would be unable to get to Minneapolis unless someone could provide transportation. The festival staff had tried to arrange a ride but it didn’t seem like things were going to work out. Especially with the weather gods frowning upon us.

I finally arrived at the theater and was relieved to learn they were running behind schedule. I was not late for my own premiere. The audience started to fill up the seats. Lots of familiar faces, but also lots of strangers who braved the storm and paid $12 to sit down and watch our little labor of love. The festival’s Minnesota-Made programmer Craig Rice introduced the film, the lights dimmed, and the show began. This was the first time I’d seen it on a big screen, and it looked really awesome. Kudos to editor Bill Kersey, and our post-production team at Pixel Farm, for making it look and sound like a real movie. It made me realize… hey, it is a real movie!

But, there were still those reserved seats, taped off in the back of the room. Empty.

MSPIFF premiere

Then, Alex and Nura arrived. You see, a day earlier, Libby Murphy heard a story about American Heart on Public Radio. Libby was the Guest Relations Coordinator for the festival, and the radio piece gave her a taste of Alex's story of loss and perseverance. As a result she resolved to get Alex to the premiere, even if meant taking up the task herself and spinning around the snowy streets in her Mini-Cooper. It wasn't an easy journey, but they made it, and Libby became one of my heroes that day. Alex and Nura took their seats.

Twenty minutes passed. I got a phone call from Priscilla, Patrick’s sister. She was guiding the Patrick Junior contingent through the wicked weather in her own little four-door coup and had finally arrived. I didn’t believe it until I saw it with my own eyes, but there was Patrick and his family. They made it, however a little late, and they took their seats. (Poor Priscilla missed another twenty minutes of the film, and she came in drenched in melted show after circling the neighborhood for a parking spot. Just goes to show it requires a high level of adaptability to move your family from Southeast Asia to Minnesota, never so apparent as in the grips of winter weather.)

As the credits closed and the house lights came up, the crowd gave us a rousing response. Craig invited Bill and me up to the front to take questions and discuss the making of the film.

At every Q & A, I get the same question: “How are Alex and Patrick doing now?” When asked that question at the premiere, I was able to show rather than tell. I invited Alex and Nura, and Patrick and his family, up to the front of the theater. They had been laying low in the back, and as soon as the audience saw them making their way up the aisle, a standing ovation erupted. It was really a special moment. Not only did the audience get to see and hear from the stars of the film, but the stars, Alex and Patrick, who had been occupying the same space in the movie but had never actually met, got to shake hands with one another. From the sound of it, the audience felt privileged to have witnessed Alex and Patrick taking their bow, but nobody was as privileged as me.

A few days passed, and I went to attend a screening of another film in the festival. As I strolled through the corridor, I caught a glimpse of the audience polling results on the wall. As of April 22nd, American Heart was atop the list, beating out 102 other films from Minnesota and around the world.

MSPIFF premiere

Alas, on April 23rd a very good documentary from California called Stuck, which explores international adoption, knocked us out of first place by a slim margin (0.02 points out of 4.0). The makers of Stuck attended the Minneapolis screening, arriving at the theater in a tour bus wrapped in the film’s poster art (see photo to the left). How can we compete with that?!

Still, we finished the festival in second place, with an audience rating of 3.91 out of 4. That was good enough to land us an Audience Choice Award, and we scored higher than 209 other films including such high-profile indie hits as In a World..., Twenty Feet from Stardom, Kon Tiki, and many others.

We were also invited back for an additional screening during “Best of Fest” week and two screenings at the satellite event, the Rochester International Film Festival. (Nevermind there was an even later-season snowstorm blocking the path to one of the Rochester screenings!)

The events surrounding the premiere night made for quite a whirlwind, but it was a great way to launch the film. My sincere thanks to the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival and everyone who made the event(s) a great success! And, as always, I'm grateful to the all those who were so supportive and instrumental in making the film a reality, in particular editor Bill Kersey, executive producer Melody Gilbert, and our advisors Dr. Pat Walker and Dr. Bill Stauffer.

MSPIFF premiere


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