When New York City became the epicenter of the country’s Covid outbreak in 2020, many residents—those of means, anyway—fled to second homes or other points far from the city. But not New York-based filmmaker Matthew Heineman. He suited up in PPE on the frontlines of the Covid battle.
The Oscar-nominated director gained access to Long Island Jewish Medical Center in the borough of Queens, filming the experience of medical staff and patients as Covid exploded. The result is his National Geographic documentary The First Wave, a Participant production that’s a contender for Oscar consideration.
“We first really in earnest started thinking about the film in early March  as the first cases of Covid hit the U.S.,” Heineman tells Deadline. “I wanted to try to humanize this issue that at that point was so relegated to headlines and to stats and, frankly, misinformation. The original impetus was really to try to pay homage to the amazing work that health care workers were doing inside hospitals, something that we weren’t seeing as the general public.”
The First Wave unfolds in real time as the hospital copes with coronavirus patients, some of whom can’t be saved. Others cling to life in intensive care, struggling for every breath.
“You just feel so helpless,” Nathalie Dougé, an internal medicine physician, confides in the film. Yet day after day she returns to work, trying to help the next person suffering from Covid.
“I felt like, at the time, other people were speaking for the health care workers,” Dr. Dougé tells Deadline, explaining her decision to take part in the film. “[People] weren’t getting the true sense of the uncertainty that we were going through, because no one knew what we were about to live through. When placed with the opportunity to tell my side of the story, I said, ‘Sure, why not?’”
Because of the danger of transmitting the virus, family members of the ill and dying weren’t allowed to see their loved ones in person. Nurses bridged the divide, holding iPads in front of hospitalized Covid patients so their families could speak with them. The First Wave captures some of those poignant moments.
“What we have to remember is a lot of these nurses were coming from areas [of the hospital] that had settled down, like the operating room–they stopped surgeries,” nurse Kellie Wunsch, one of the subjects of the film, tells Deadline. “A lot of these nurses don’t have a lot of that type of bedside experience. Now you’re putting an iPad in their hand and you’re telling them to FaceTime this person’s family. A lot of times the family members were asking them, ‘Could you hold their hand? Could you stroke their hair?’ To watch it, it was just absolutely gut-wrenching.”
In that time well before vaccines became available, hospital staff faced the worry of becoming infected themselves, or transmitting Covid to their own loved ones.
“A lot of our concerns were, are we bringing it home to our family members?” Wunsch recalls. “I worried every night that I was bringing it home to my husband. I was almost grateful that I worked late hours, so I actually didn’t see my kids a whole lot.”
Nationwide, disparities began to emerge in how Covid was impacting different segments of the U.S. population. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association earlier this month reported, “…[M]embers of racial and ethnic minority groups had higher risks of COVID-19 positivity and disease severity. Furthermore, socioeconomic determinants were strongly associated with COVID-19 outcomes in racial and ethnic minority populations.”
Dr. Dougé, a child of Haitian immigrants, discovered that early on.
“A lot of my patients quickly I saw, wait a minute, they’re Black, they were of immigrant backgrounds, they were people of color,” Dr. Dougé remembers. “You couldn’t help but see the disparities in race and economics that I was seeing pretty much even before the pandemic, but with a magnifying glass this time around.”
When protests erupted coast to coast after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, Heineman took his cameras into the streets of New York to film demonstrations. He says he included those scenes because systemic racism and the way Covid has affected minority communities can’t be viewed in isolation.
“They’re absolutely intrinsically tied together,” Heineman observes. “The discussions around this longstanding epidemic of racism in our country, which was obviously tied to the disproportionate impact within hospitals with Covid, it was something that we had to cover.”
There was an additional reason to cover it—Dr. Dougé took part in some of those protests herself.
“Yes, I’m a physician, but I chose that career because I knew that was just one pathway I could be an advocate for a multitude of people,” Dr. Dougé says. “So, with the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and a multitude of other Black individuals at the hands of the police, there’s no way I could confine myself with being an advocate just within the four walls of the hospital. Because once I walk out those doors, I don’t have a white coat. No one knows what I do for my profession. I am another Black body that some individuals believe are not of the same caliber as someone else, when in actuality we are all of one kind, we’re all human beings and we deserve the right to live.”
Over the course of his career, Heineman has won two Emmys and a pair of DGA Awards for directorial achievement. He earned an Oscar nomination for his 2016 documentary Cartel Land. The First Wave has earned the Pare Lorentz Award from the International Documentary Association, as well as awards from the Montclair Film Festival and the Philadelphia Film Festival.
“It was the biggest honor of my life to be able to make this film,” Heineman says. “I hope people aren’t scared by it. I hope people engage with it and I hope people use it as a way to reflect on what we’ve all been through and use it as a way to help chart a path forward. This [pandemic] will end at some point. But what have we learned, how have we changed? Who are we now as a society?”
He adds, “One of the tragedies of Covid is how an already divided nation was further divided by it. It didn’t have to be that way, I don’t think. And, so I hope the film can humanize and take away the politics that has really become tied to the discussion around Covid, and really focus on the human beings at the center of it all.”
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