Documenting A Pandemic: ‘The First Wave’ Revisits the Fear in New York City in Spring 2020

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A scene from Matthew Heineman's film "The First Wave" showing COVID-19 patient Ahmed Ellis. Courtesy National Geographic.

Deserted streets, medical tents in Central Park, a hospital ship in the harbor, mass graves on Hart Island, people cheering healthcare workers from apartment windows and on the streets. These were pandemic scenes from New York City, circa March 2020.

Looking back from our hindsight perch in the fall of 2021, it can be hard to recall the images and emotions that were swirling around us at that time. It seems so long ago, yet in many respects, feels like only yesterday. Despite the fact that COVID-19 vaccines are now readily available, variants of the disease continue to decimate populations that have chosen to reject them. With a change in administration and political battle lines hardened, the pandemic has morphed into a new phase to such an extent that it can be difficult to remember the days of fear and uncertainty when we were still wiping down groceries and resorting to near black-market tactics in order to procure face masks.

Filmmaker Matthew Heineman lives in New York City and in the spring of 2020 as the pandemic was in its earliest days, he recognized the importance of capturing the disease’s infancy on our shores — back when many people were calling it a hoax and saying it was no worse than the average flu.

Dr. Nathalie Dougé marches in a BLM protest in New York City in spring, 2020. A scene from Matthew Heineman’s film “The First Wave.” Courtesy National Geographic.

“I think as the pandemic was sort of swirling around China and Europe, it seemed like a fait accompli and that it would come to the U.S.,” Heineman said in a recent phone interview. “That’s when I sort of thought in terms of whether there’s a film I could make.”

Heineman knows quite a bit about making documentaries that deal in difficult subjects in dangerous places. His 2017 film “City of Ghosts” followed an activist group of Syrian journalists who went undercover and into exile after the country was taken over by ISIS. He also earned an Oscar nomination and two Emmys for his 2015 documentary “Cartel Land” about the U.S.-Mexico drug-trade, and his 2020 film “The Boy from Medellín,” which was acquired by Amazon prior to its Toronto premiere last fall and follows Colombian singer J. Balvin as he prepares for a hometown concert amid political turmoil.

But this time, it was different. This time, the story was in Heineman’s own backyard.

“Having made so many films in different parts of the world, I wanted to make a film that was personal to here,” he said.

In order to tell the tale, Heineman did what he so often does with his films. He assembled a small crew and embedded with subjects — in this case, healthcare workers and patients at Northwell Health’s Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens — and from March to June of last year, documented the tragedy as it unfolded.

Now, with more than 700,000 Americans dead and counting from COVID-19, Heineman’s film, “The First Wave,” will have its world premiere at the Hamptons International Film Festival (HIFF). The documentary is the festival’s opening night film and is scheduled to screen at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, October 7, at East Hampton’s Guild Hall. It will be shown again at the Sag Harbor Cinema on Friday, October 8, at 11:45 a.m.

A healthcare worker tends to patient Ahmed Ellis in a scene from Matthew Heineman’s film “The First Wave.” Courtesy National Geographic.

In order to tell the story of COVID-19’s emergence, Heineman and his team reached out to different New York area medical facilities through connections made during his previous film on healthcare. They found that Long Island Jewish (LIJ) was willing to allow the filmmaker and his crew access to its COVID-19 wards early on.

“It seemed they were open to it, despite the unknowns of the disease and the fear,” said Heineman, adding that LIJ was also supportive of his on-the-ground, character-driven style of storytelling. “I didn’t want to talk to doctors on Zoom after the fact. I wanted to be there.”

“The First Wave” takes viewers into the hospital rooms, hallways, and COVID-19 wards of LIJ from March to June 2020, and documents overwhelmed healthcare staff struggling with a brand new disease that none of them have ever seen. In the film, patients who seem stable suddenly need to be intubated or go into cardiac arrest and are given CPR in a desperate bid to save them. Afterwards, there is a moment of silence among the staff before the bodies get zipped into white bags and are transferred down to morgue semis parked outside the hospital. The nurses break down in tears and the doctors have to make phone calls, delivering the worst possible news to families unable to be with their loved ones during their final moments.

The images are stark, up-close, intense and at times hard to watch. They speak to the harsh realities of what hospital staff across New York were dealing with when little was known about the disease.

“One tragedy of COVID in the early days is that the general public was shielded from what was really happening inside the hospital walls,” Heineman said. “One of my inspirations was to pay homage to the incredible work the healthcare workers did.”

Key to telling any story is zeroing in on people to highlight, and Heineman explains how he went about the process for “The First Wave.”

“Most of the films I’ve made in the past have been centered around finding an individual or organization or institution and through them, I explore an issue,” he said. “This was different. The issue drew me in first, I got a hospital and then needed subjects to follow to bring us through this world.

“People don’t like to talk about casting in documentaries, but that’s what happens,” he added. “You have to be on the ground and in there to see it.”

A scene from Matthew Heineman’s film “The First Wave.” Courtesy National Geographic.

Among the emergency medical personnel that Heineman chose to focus on in the film is Dr. Nathalie Dougé, a hospitalist for Northwell Health and the child of Haitian immigrants who, in her overwhelmingly Black and brown patients, recognizes a pandemic that is disproportionately affecting people who look like her.

“I knew she’d be a good subject. She was open, brave, bold and a natural on camera,” said Heineman. “It seemed clear she’d be a good person to follow. None of us knew her before the pandemic or where the story would go, but I knew early on she had something quite special.”

By May 2020, in the middle of filming a story about COVID-19, Heineman and his crew had to shift gears to cover another story — this one about the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and subsequent protests that swept the nation. Heineman and his crew documented the protests and Dr. Dougé, who marched with a medical mask emblazoned with the phrase “I Can’t Breathe,” speaking not only to the pandemic, but the political ramifications of the times as well. Though an unexpected element, Heineman stresses it was important to follow the story wherever it led.

“The way I make films is with an open mind, I say this over and over and with everyone, it keeps coming true,” he said. “When I was 21, a mentor said if you end up with the story you started with, you weren’t listening. You have to be open to the story changing. Being quite clear over the first couple weeks of filming that people of color were disproportionately impacted by the disease, through Dr. Dougé, a first generation immigrant, she naturally brought us into that side of the story after the killing of George Floyd and the racial reckoning.”

In “The First Wave,” Heineman also follows two hospitalized COVID-19 patients — both under 40, and both essential workers. Ahmed Ellis, an NYPD school safety officer and father of two young children, including a 7-month-old daughter, has to go on a ventilator after suffering a setback, while Brussels Jabon, a Northwell Health nurse with COVID-19, undergoes an emergency C-section in order to save both her life and that of her son.

“It was an extremely difficult film to make,” Heineman confessed. “I’ve been in conflict zones, but you come home and you’re technically out of danger. Unlike films in the past, this film was all consuming. We were living the same thing we were documenting. I can’t stress how little we knew at the time.”

Heineman explains that while filming, he and his crew followed the same protocols as healthcare professionals, donning and doffing PPE, and wearing one N95 mask for two weeks at a time.

“We did what we were told and thankfully, despite filming so long, no one got sick,” he said. “In the beginning, we were filming every day. We didn’t know if it would be a two week or three week thing. We didn’t know we’d film three months, and we decided to focus on four. As our stories got deeper with our characters, we expanded beyond the hospital walls and began filming loved ones at home.”

Now that we’re more than a year and half removed from the early days, and COVID-19 deaths are primarily among those who refuse to be vaccinated — and often have disdain, rather than praise, for healthcare professionals — how does Heineman see the pandemic’s earliest days?

“It’s in the background of one of the scenes. [Governor] Cuomo is saying this will be over when we have a vaccine, and sadly, that’s not true and I think we all thought that at the time,” he said. “One of the saddest things about COVID is one would think and hope and dream that something like this could actually bring our country together around a common cause that affects everyone. In fact, it’s been polarizing and politicized.

“Watching the film now is interesting. In no world in which I made it did I think we’d still be living with it now,” he added. “It’s become so ubiquitous, everyone in the world has been touched by it in some form — either through a death in the family or how lives have changed. It’s interesting and important to remember how terrifying it was in the early days and how constantly our lives changed. That’s why we felt it was important to document the early months.

“The film is not political. It doesn’t get into the politics of it all, and I hope the film can actually bring both sides together and be a vehicle to which we can have a dialogue about what happened and hopefully be somewhat cathartic and move ourselves forward.”

“The First Wave” screens at Guild Hall on Thursday, October 7, at 6:30 p.m. with Matthew Heineman in attendance. Produced by Participant and Our Time Projects with Alex Gibney as an executive producer, it has been acquired by Neon and National Geographic Documentary Films, and opens in theaters November 19. It will also be available on Hulu and the National Geographic channel. For details, visit hamptonsfilmfest.org.

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