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‘The First Wave’ shows early days of COVID we never had to see

Most people were ‘so shielded from the realities,’ says filmmaker Matthew Heineman

A patient stares into space during the early months of the pandemic, when documentarian Matthew Heineman was capturing footage of one of the hardest hit places in New York. “The American public didn’t get to see images of how people were living or dying,” says Heineman.
A patient stares into space during the early months of the pandemic, when documentarian Matthew Heineman was capturing footage of one of the hardest hit places in New York. “The American public didn’t get to see images of how people were living or dying,” says Heineman. (Courtesy National Geographic)

Most everyone knows what they were doing in March 2020, when the United States started locking down in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was confusing and lonely and people were cut off from human contact. That deprived many of us of seeing first hand where the pandemic hit the hardest, particularly in New York.

“Especially those early weeks, especially in the first wave, we as the American public were so shielded from the realities of what was happening inside hospitals. This issue that could have brought our country together further polarized us. It was highly politicized. And I think a big part of that is the fact that the American public didn’t get to see images of how people were living or dying,” said Matthew Heineman, whose new documentary “The First Wave” is an up-close narrative set at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens, N.Y., from March to June in 2020. 

Heineman secured access early and went about documenting “the incredible work that health care workers were doing with no information on how to keep people alive.” And he felt a heavy responsibility to get it right. “There’s a reason why journalism exists … it informs public consciousness. These are real human beings affected by it. And we didn’t really see that. We were inundated with stats and headlines and information, but not any images,” he said in an interview conducted in a format that the pandemic transformed from novel to commonplace, on Zoom. 

Heineman’s previous documentaries placed him in dangerous situations, in Mexico for the Academy Award-nominated “Cartel Land,” in Syria during a civil war for “City of Ghosts,” and in Colombia during a time of civil unrest for “The Boy from Medellin.”

None of it prepared him for Long Island Jewish.

“In making ‘The First Wave,’ we were living the same thing we were documenting … you can never really shut off. … Especially in those early weeks, early days, we knew so little about the disease, how it’s transmitted, how to protect ourselves,” he said.

That fear is echoed in the health care workers putting in desperate hours trying to save patients. “We are taught pattern recognition, and right now there is no pattern,” Dr. Nathalie Dougé, one of the subjects of the documentary, says early in the film. 

Much of the imagery of the early days of the pandemic was about absence: Lack of people, of traffic, of interaction. This movie changes that. You feel the anxiety, the motion, the loss, grace and even celebration. It’s an historical document that shows what was happening when we had to close all our doors on one another.

“I always feel pressure with every film I make. I always make every film like it’s my last. … This film was that on steroids. I just felt an enormous, enormous, enormous responsibility in telling this story. I knew no one really had the access that we had, at the time,” Heineman said. 

The story changed in May of 2020, when George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis by police and protests swept cities across the world, particularly New York. 

Heineman followed that, particularly as people like Dougé saw a convergence of racial inequity in health care, something that played out every day at LIJ in the COVID wards, with the racial justice issues Floyd’s death brought out. “I can’t breathe,” Floyd’s last words as a police officer kneeled on his neck, had extra resonance for people fighting a disease that cut off people’s ability to breathe. 

This is a heavy movie, but it’s also one that shows how and why people survive something like this current plague. 

Heineman tracks the progress of two frontline workers with COVID, New York City Police Officer Ahmed Ellis and nurse Brussels Jabon, as they struggle, almost die and recover. It’s an important bookend to the sadder, more tragic images of people dying, of bodies being loaded onto a makeshift morgue outside the hospital, of exhaustion and grief. 

“Every day we were deeply inspired by the resiliency, by the courage, the fortitude, the humanity, the love that we witnessed,” Heineman said. “The film is about many, many, many, many different things. But if I was going to boil it down to one thing, it would be about how human beings come together in a time of crisis.”

He acknowledges his movie is a tough sell. 

“I’m nervous that people are scared of it. I’m nervous that people are afraid to engage with it. I think we as Americans have this tendency to want to move on and not look back. And so I hope that people are able to engage with it and that we can lower the barrier for entry because I think there’s a lot of hope, a lot of beauty, a lot of love in the film.”

Bearing witness is one of the things that make us human, that enables civilization to survive and learn and heal. Things like COVID-19 happen once a century. Even so. 

“It’s a hard movie to do press for because I feel like Willy Loman. Like, ‘Come watch my movie.’ But I really feel this responsibility to try to lower that barrier for people. I know it exists. I have best friends of mine who I’ve known since childhood, who are like, ‘Hey, man. I’m not sure if I can, like, watch your movie.’ And I’m like, seriously?” Heineman said.

“The First Wave” is in theaters now and will start streaming on Hulu on Dec. 5.

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