With exclusive access inside one of New York’s hardest hit hospital systems during the terrifying first four months of the pandemic, Oscar nominated and Emmy® Award-winning director Matthew Heineman’s THE FIRST WAVE spotlights the everyday heroes at the epicenter of COVID-19 as they come together to fight one of the greatest threats the world has ever encountered. Leaving a devastating trail of death and despair, this once-in-a-century pandemic changed the very fabric of our daily lives and exposed long-standing inequities in our society. Employing his signature approach of character-driven cinema vérité, Heineman embeds with a group of doctors, nurses and patients on the frontlines as they all desperately try to navigate the crisis. With each distinct storyline serving as a microcosm through which we can view the emotional and societal impacts of the pandemic, THE FIRST WAVE is a testament to the strength of the human spirit.
“It’s both a vital piece of historical record that bravely captures the unseen horrors of the pandemic and a generous celebration of human dignity whose existence feels miraculous.” – Tomris Laffly, Variety
“The First Wave” understands the way that individuals frequently can only process events in personal terms and amplifies that understanding in order to create a broader portrait of loss, and to create and encourage empathy to persevere in spite of it.” -Todd Gilchrist, The Wrap
“It’s also a breathtaking testament to the fight to live, the calling to heal, and the power of human connection.”-Sheri Linden, The Hollywood Reporter
In early 2020, as COVID-19 began to explode across the world, I began to explore the possibility of documenting this once-in-a-century pandemic by filming the heroic work of frontline healthcare workers combating this new terrifying disease. It was extraordinarily difficult to convince hospitals to let me in, until a subject in my previous healthcare film (“Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare”) introduced us to Northwell Health, the largest healthcare provider in New York. We were eventually given full access to embed inside one of their hardest hit hospitals in Queens as it became clear that New York was becoming the epicenter of the crisis. Our team (as well as Northwell) felt a deep responsibility to document the impact of the deadly virus on patients and providers, since one of the challenges in combating COVID-19 is that the general public hasn’t been able to truly see the horrors of the pandemic.
While our field team had filmed in dangerous conflict zones and extensively inside hospitals, this story required a totally new approach. Working with medical experts, we developed detailed safety protocols that would allow us to film—as unobtrusively as possible—the unfolding story in a chaotic medical environment. Employing a character-driven, cinéma-vérité approach, I wanted to capture the life-and-death stakes as well as the intimate, poignant moments of humanity as experienced by the medical staff, patients and their families throughout the first wave of COVID-19 in NYC from March to June 2020. Our aim was to use each of the distinct storylines of our characters as a microcosm through which we all can view
the emotional and societal impact of the pandemic.
As with all of my films, we follow where our stories and characters take us. Over time, inside the hospital, it became increasingly clear that people of color were disproportionately affected by the pandemic. At the end of May, one of our main subjects, Dr. Nathalie Dougé, a first-generation Haitian American, brought us onto the frontlines of another ongoing crisis when she joined protests on the streets of NYC following the murder of George Floyd. His last words, “I can’t breathe,” were a chilling echo of the last words of so many of Dr. Dougé’s patients that lost their lives to COVID-19.
There is no question that making this film was difficult, but every day my team and I drew enormous inspiration from the incredible people we were filming, like ICU Nurse Kellie Wunsch and Dr. Dougé, who risked their own lives to save the lives of others, and COVID- 19 patients Ahmed Ellis and Brussels Jabon, who fought back from the brink of death. I hope that THE FIRST WAVE will serve as a homage to healthcare workers across the world, a remembrance of those who lost their lives, and a historical testament to the strength of the human spirit.