Erin Martin, a primary care doctor, was forced to prescribe medication to a suicidal woman rather than deal with her deeper psychological issues, due to pressure from her clinic, which sought to see a large number of patients. In “Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Health Care,” a documentary co-directed and produced by Matthew Heineman ’05, tackles what Heineman believes is a broken American health care system. The film was born out of a meeting arranged by producer Doug Scott between Heineman and fashion designer Donna Karan. Karan’s experience with the health care system as her husband battled cancer sparked her concern for the state of American health care, Heineman said.
After the meeting, he began researching the health care system and brought Susan Froemke, a team member from a previous documentary, on board to co-produce and direct.
“It was 2009 and the health care debate was heating up,” he said. “It was really dividing our country and we wanted to understand why the system was so broken, why it didn’t change and try to profile and highlight people that wanted to fix it.”
The United States spends twice as much as any developed country in the world on health care, but is at or near the bottom on almost every method of health.
“As we began to do research, we quickly realized that we don’t really have a health care system, we have a disease care system that profits on sickness, not on health,” he said
Heineman said his challenges as a director and producer included making health care understandable for lay people and enlivening the topic. The final film included both experts and personal narratives to examine health care through many lenses.
Heineman and Froemke began working on the film in the summer of 2009 and it premiered in last January at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize. Since beginning the film, Heineman said he and Froemke have found an “enormous” resistance to change in the health care system. In order to fix the system, the payment structure must change, he said.
Heineman changed the film’s title from “A Tale of Two Systems” to “Escape Fire” after reading an essay of the same name by Donald Berwick, the former administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, that drew a metaphor between a 1949 forest fire and the broken health care system.
The film allows various characters to tell their own stories, prompting the audience to engage in active dialogue about health care, said co-producer Adam White ’05, who played lacrosse with Heineman at Dartmouth and collaborated with him on “Our Time,” a documentary Heineman made shortly after graduating.
White said Heineman possesses a “great eye for beauty and for human character” and that this quality manifests itself in his ability to not only picture what should be in the frame, but elicit a valuable response.
Froemke said she and Heinman have share artistic instincts.
“Intuitively, we think the same way,” she said. “We are always looking for what makes the best story and what the beginning, middle and end of the story are.”
In making the documentary, Heineman said he aimed to provide solution-oriented stories.
At Dartmouth, Heineman majored in history, played varsity lacrosse, served as a Dartmouth Outing Club trip leader, directed the Thetford Mentor Program in his senior year and worked for Dartmouth Green Magazine. He also exhibited his photography in the Collis Center for Student Involvement, raising money for an orphanage in Bangladesh.
“That experience had a major effect in terms of my desire to be interested in the arts,” he said.
The summer after graduation, Heineman, along with two friends from Dartmouth and another from high school, drove around the U.S. for three months. Heineman said they decided to take the trip because they realized they did not know much about their own country.
“We wanted to do something productive and inquisitive and that led to a conversation about our own country,” he said. “It was a really a kaleidoscopic look about what is like to be young in today’s America, ranging from Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, to prostitutes we found on the street.”
The cross-country trip led to “Our Time,” Heineman’s first documentary and filmmaking experience. The film was released in 2011 and aired on the Documentary Channel.
Heineman worked as an assistant editor for NBC Sports while editing “Our Time” and sent a version of his documentary to HBO, which led to his work on its Emmy-nominated series “The Alzheimer’s Project.”
At HBO, Heineman worked as a producer on “Momentum in Science,” a look into the current state of research on Alzheimer’s disease and what can be done to better detect and diagnose the illness.
He spent a little over two years at HBO before starting work on “Escape Fire.”
“Escape Fire” was released by Roadside Attractions in select theaters last October. CNN Films aired the film on its network last month.