‘The First Wave’ director Matthew Heineman on humanizing the COVID-19 response

National Geographic’s “The First Wave” is a harrowing documentary that covers the first four months of COVID-19 at one of New York’s hardest-hit hospitals, Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens. It was a film that Matthew Heineman, who’s helmed the docs “Cartel Land” (2015) and “City of Ghosts” (2017), knew he had to make as the virus erupted stateside in March 2020.

“I think I woke up sort of in early March as this issue started to become plastered across headlines and we were inundated with stats and misinformation, I just felt this huge obligation to tell this story,” Heineman tells Gold Derby at our Meet the Experts: Film Directors panel (watch above). “Like previous films I’ve made, I wanted to try to humanize this issue, put a human face to it. And so I sought hospitals around the country to try to get access and ultimately gained access to my hometown here in New York.”

Heineman and his crew were given unprecedented access to LIJ, where they filmed for months after naively thinking, much like many did back then, that this thing would just last for two weeks and we could resume our normal lives. Compounding matters was that there was so little information on COVID at the time that every single day was “terrifying.” (No one on the crew or anyone they filmed contracted COVID during production.)

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“As someone who’s made films in different war zones and conflict zones, you can somewhat sort of detach your brain when you come home, although these stories never really leave you. With this, we’re living the same thing that we’re documenting, so it was a full-on 24/7 experience for not just days but weeks and months,” Heineman describes. “It was definitely the hardest film I’ve ever made on every single level, but what I think drove us and what inspired us were the subjects we’re following — the doctors, the nurses on the frontlines, trying to save patients with such limited information and tools. Every single day we just witnessed such beautiful moments of humanity and love and courage, and I think that’s the overwhelming feeling that we had every day despite the terror of it all.”

“The First Wave” follows three subjects: Dr. Nathalie Dougé, a first-generation Haitian-American who later joins protests for Black Lives Matter (another development that Heineman couldn’t have seen coming in March), and two essential workers who got COVID, police officer Ahmed Ellis, and Brussels Jabon, a nurse who had just given birth. The families of Ellis and Jabon also allowed Heineman to film them at home, shedding light on what loved ones deal with when at the time the only way they could communicate was via FaceTime.

“I always wanted to make a character-driven film. I didn’t wanna make a sort of ‘How did we get here? What happened?’ There’s no talking heads, there’s no experts, there’s no stats, there’s no cards. It’s an experiential film in which I wanted the audience to be on the ground, experiencing as doctors experienced it, as nurses experienced it, as patients and family members experienced it,” Heineman explains. “It was really important for me to get outside of the hospital, to leave those four walls and to see how this was affecting family members.”

COVID is, of course, not over, and Heineman understands that for some it might be difficult or too soon to watch a COVID doc, but he hopes those who do watch can find some hope from it. “I think 100 different people watching this film will hopefully take 100 different things away from it. I love embracing the complexity of the human condition, and I think this film is about many things. Obviously on one hand it’s about COVID, it’s about systemic racism, it’s about families and love and birth and death,” he says. “But in some sense, if I was gonna really distill it, it’s about how human beings came together in the face of crisis. I think that’s what we witnessed every single day. That’s what inspired us. I didn’t go to bed at night while making this film sort of sad about the state of the world. I went to bed at night feeling deeply inspired.”

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