‘The First Wave, a COVID documentary located at LI Hospital, opens this year’s Hamptons Film Festival
An elderly patient battling COVID-19 at Long Island Jewish Medical Center begs to be put on a ventilator in “The First Wave,” a new documentary about the pandemic’s first onslaughts. The patient, identified only as George, does not survive. Despite a series of CPR that briefly pulls him from the brink, he somehow slips away.
The hospital staff who tried to save him paused for a moment of silence. And then, overwhelmed by other incoming cases, they move on.
For those whose experience with the pandemic has been limited to the daily headlines about the number of cases and death rates, “The First Wave” should be a revelation. Filmed from March to June 2020 in the hallways and intensive care units of LIJ – a medical complex based in New Hyde Park in Nassau County and spanning Queens – the documentary, directed by Matthew Heineman, captures the the anguish of patients, the helplessness of those close to them and the raw emotions of healthcare workers. “The First Wave” will have its world premiere on October 7 as the opening night selection of the Hamptons International Film Festival.
The film can be a tough watch, but it’s also a necessity, according to festival programmer David Nugent. “Of course we could have had a light and mellow film. We have them later in the festival and I hope people go to see them because sometimes we need them,” he said. “But I think it’s important to recognize what people went through and honor the sacrifice and the loss that happened.”
Heineman, a New York filmmaker from Washington, DC and Connecticut, is probably best known for “Cartel Land,” a 2015 documentary on the Mexican drug wars that earned him an Oscar nomination, and “The Trade , A five-part opioid crisis series that aired on Showtime in 2018. He also directed “A Private War,” the 2018 biopic starring Rosamund Pike as Marie Colvin, the war correspondent raised to Long Island who died while covering the siege of Homs in Syria. in 2012.
Heineman, 38, said he remembered the atmosphere of uncertainty and terror as the pandemic began to spread from China to the US shores in the first months of 2020. “I was obviously curious. and frightened by this mysterious disease, ”he said. “And as it started to be discovered in New York, that’s when I started to seriously understand: is there a movie here and how can we do it?”
Heineman contacted dozens of hospitals across the country and obtained access from LIJ, which is part of the Northwell Health System. “We were living in what was the epicenter of the global impact of COVID-19 at the time,” said Michael Goldberg, executive director of the medical center. “The last time we experienced something like this was in 1918. To capture what we see now as a historical perspective, maybe it can inform us to be much better prepared for the future.”
Using small film crews and sometimes acting as his own cameraman, Heineman found a wide range of stories but ended up focusing on a handful of individuals. One is Ahmed Ellis, a school safety officer with the New York Police Department who is so weakened by the illness that he later needs physical therapy just to sit up in bed. Another is Brussels Jabon, a nurse who becomes a COVID-19 patient during pregnancy and will have to deal with an emergency cesarean. (Goldberg said Heineman’s crew were accompanied by a guide at all times to ensure safety protocols were followed and to protect patient privacy.)
What may surprise viewers is the intensity of the suffering. Many patients appear to be half-dead, almost zombified. Others seem to focus every ounce of strength on their next breath. Ellis, who has been asked to give a thumbs-up gesture by a member of staff, just can’t do it.
“To see where I was and where I am now, it’s just a total of 360,” said Ellis, 36. He was taken to hospital in an ambulance on April 7, he said, and has no memory of being there until a month later, when a friend passed by. and managed to pull him out of his fog. “It’s a little sad watching him,” Ellis said of himself in the movies. “But I feel even better because I’m here to tell my story.”
“The First Wave” also discusses how COVID-19 began to reflect racial disparities in America. Dougé, who is black, points out that most of his patients are black and Hispanic, and many are immigrants. In late May 2020, following the death of George Floyd – a black man killed by a white policeman who knelt on his neck – Heineman’s documentary focuses on the protest marches that followed. There, signs emblazoned with Floyd’s plea “I can’t breathe” seem to echo the words of countless COVID-19 patients.
“Most of the time people only see me as a black woman. Nobody really knows what I’m doing,” said Dr Nathalie Dougé, who appears in the film. “Every time I saw a patient who looked a little like me, I saw myself and my family, and the constant struggle we have to fight for the care we deserve.” She added: “This pandemic has allowed the whole world to see. It has taken the blinders of ignorance away from people who don’t want to see what’s going on.”
Amidst the conflicts and losses seen in the film, however, there are moments of optimism. New Yorkers bang pots and pans outside their windows to celebrate the efforts of healthcare workers, and those workers in turn give standing ovations to patients who manage to leave the hospital and return home.
“There have been countless times where I and we have all gotten emotional,” Heineman said. “Sometimes these relationships between patients, nurses and doctors were very quick, and sometimes they built over weeks. The amount of love, care and dedication these healthcare workers had for their patients was deeply inspiring and moving. “
Along with its opening documentary on the pandemic, “The First Wave,” the Hamptons International Film Festival will screen titles ranging from comedies to dramas. Here are some examples of the program:
GO! GO (Friday, October 8 at 5:30 p.m. at Guild Hall, 158 Main Street, East Hampton) A radio reporter (Joaquin Phoenix) finds himself looking after his nine-year-old nephew (Woody Norman). Mike Mills, of “Beginners,” wrote and directed.
WHO PASSED (Friday, October 8 at 8 p.m. at Sag Harbor Cinema, 90 Main St.) Rebecca Hall’s debut film tells the story of two black women (Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga) who might ‘pass’ for white but choose to live at the opposite. sides of the color line during the Harlem Renaissance.
BELFAST (Saturday October 9 at 10:30 am at Guild Hall) This drama about a boy whose life was disrupted by political violence in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s was inspired by the childhood of writer-director Kenneth Branagh. With Jude Hill, Jamie Dornan, Caitríona Balfe and Judi Dench.
PRESENTATION OF SELMA BLAIR (Saturday, October 9 at 2 p.m. at the Sag Harbor cinema) A candid documentary about the 49-year-old actor (“Cruel Intentions” and “Hellboy”) who announced in 2018 that she was suffering from multiple sclerosis. Blair and director Rachel Fleit, of Stony Brook, are scheduled to attend the screening.
THE POWER OF THE DOG (Saturday, October 9 at 1:30 p.m. at Guild Hall) Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons star in a love triangle within a Montana cattle ranching family in the early 20th century. Jane Campion, of “The Piano”, wrote and directed.
SPENCER (Saturday, October 9 at 8 p.m. at Guild Hall) Kristen Stewart plays Princess Diana in this drama from writer Steven Knight (“Locke”) and director Pablo Larraín (“Jackie”).
FRENCH EXPEDITION (October 11, 7 p.m. at Guild Hall) The latest by Wes Anderson is an anthology of stories from a fictional magazine. The cast includes Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton and Timothée Chalamet.
The Hamptons International Film Festival runs October 7-13. Tickets for individual screenings are $ 15 to $ 40; passes are $ 175 to $ 1,750. Call (631) 825-0050 or visit hamptonsfilmfest.org – RAFER GUZMAN