Powerful ‘Escape Fire’ Focuses on Finding Healthcare Solutions

Escape Fire 1In the emotionally-charged discussion about healthcare we’ve heard or read many of the depressing statistics: Our national costs are rising so rapidly that they could reach $4.2 trillion annually – roughly 20 percent of our gross domestic product – within ten years.

About 65 percent of Americans are overweight and almost 75 percent of healthcare spending goes to preventable diseases; if current trends continue through 2020, up to one-fifth of healthcare spending (around $1 trillion annually) will be devoted to treating the consequences of obesity.

The average per capita cost of healthcare in the U.S.A. is around $8,000; in the rest of the developed world that figure drops to about $3,000. Thirty percent of our healthcare costs (about $750 million annually) are wasted and do not improve health; and 20 percent of patients account for 80 percent of costs.

Those and other figures have often been used by politicians and various interest groups to rally support for their positions or demonize those who disagree with them. The still-fiery debate over the 2010 Affordable Care Act reminds us that the topic among other things provokes great frustration and controversy.

Into this morass filmmakers Matthew Heineman and Susan Froemke (who previously collaborated on HBO’s The Alzheimer’s Project) have come with a documentary that acknowledges the problems but ultimately seeks a way out of the mess that doesn’t involve political grandstanding or band-aids to cover the healthcare system’s gaping wounds. Escape Fire – first screened last month in Nashville for Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and Meharry Medical College and opening today at Belcourt Theatre as part of its Doctober series – makes a compelling case for refocusing the system through preventative care.

Escape Fire 2“Like many Americans we were confused by the rhetoric and the traditional media coverage about the topic of healthcare,” Heineman tells ArtsNash. ”There’s so much hyperbole, there’s so much misinformation. We really wanted to try to cut through it all and find out how this perverse system came to be. Why was it so broken? Why did it not want to change? But we wanted to make a film that didn’t just highlight the problem but offer solutions as well.

“We really wanted to create a film that looked at how we create a sustainable healthcare system for the 21st Century. How do we move away from the disease-care system we have to a true healthcare system?”

Directors/Producers Heineman and Froemke work the aforementioned statistics into their film, but such contributions as Fredrik Sundwall’s clever animations prevent those figures from inducing a mind-numbing wonkish feeling to the documentary. And they, along with Director of Photography Wolfgang Held, focus a sharp and intimate eye on personal stories that illuminate the struggle to shed healthcare dysfunction.

Escape Fire 3“We knew we wanted to find stories…that provoked audiences into becoming invested,” Heineman explains. And he and his colleagues certainly have found stories, and people, that audiences can invest in: Among them are Dr. Erin Martin, a primary care physician in the Northwest, who seeks to have a practice where she can spend more time with patients and focus on preventative measures; Dr. Andrew Weil, founder of the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, who trains doctors and others to focus care on prevention, nutrition and healthy lifestyles; and Safeway, Inc., President and CEO Steve Burd, who in 2005 implemented the Safeway Healthy Measures Program to incentivize workers to lose weight, quit smoking, and adopt other healthy behaviors that have kept his company’s healthcare costs flat while other firms have seen those costs rise by 40 percent between 2005 and 2009.

There’s also the inspiring tale of U.S. Army Sgt. Robert Yates. Yates was severely injured while serving in Afghanistan; when we first see him he’s wheelchair-bound and heavily reliant on 32 pharmaceutical drugs. At Walter Reed Army Medical Center he works to wean himself off those drugs with an innovative program that uses some very non-cutting edge wellness tools.

“We have this fascination in America that we want the latest and greatest technology, we want that quick fix, we want that pill,” Heineman notes. And indeed, Yates’ case points up the fact that healing can come in other ways. A look at his treatment is important because it can point the way for civilians too – “It’s not only representative of what’s going on in the military but what’s going on in society at large,” the filmmaker adds.

Escape Fire 4What surprised the filmmakers as they worked in recent years to make Escape Fire? “One of the most surprising things was overtreatment, that more is not better when it comes to healthcare, that more can hurt us,” Heineman says. After seeing it, I can say more would be good in another way – more people seeing this powerful and ultimately positive film will hopefully inspire them to change the way we look at, give and receive healthcare in America.

Escape Fire (www.escapefiremovie.com) opens today (Friday, Oct. 5) and runs through Oct. 11 at the Belcourt Theatre (www.belcourt.org); tickets and times are available at the theater’s website. A discussion to follow the 7:00 p.m. screening today featuring Dr. Jordan Asher, chief medical officer and chief integration officer for MissionPoint Health Partners; Dr. Roy Elam, medical director for Vanderbilt’s Center for Integrative Health; Bharat Kilaru, and Matt Stier, co-executive directors of Vanderbilt’s Shade Tree Clinic; Bonnie Pilon, Vanderbilt professor of health systems management and senior associate dean of clinical and community partnerships; Brent Parton, director of health policy and programs, SHOUTAmerica. The screening of Escape Fire is part of Belcourt’s Doctober series of documentaries that also includes the critically lauded Searching For Sugar Man (www.sonyclassics.com/searchingforsugarman/site/ ) that opens today as well as other titles that run later in the month; for more information on the series visit www.belcourt.org/events/doctober.488083.

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*Photos courtesy Roadside Attractions.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman’s “The People vs Larry Flynt” among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).