How Matthew Heineman’s COVID Doc ‘First Wave’ Evolved During an ‘Exhausting and Terrifying’ Production

·4-min read

In March 2020, just after New York City shut down due to COVID-19, Matthew Heineman picked up his camera and embedded with a group of healthcare workers at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens. For the next three months, the director and a skeleton crew captured doctors, nurses, and medical technicians as they battled to keep COVID patients alive and the virus at bay at one of the country’s hardest-hit hospitals.

The result of Heineman’s efforts is “The First Wave” – a documentary that will have its world premiere and serve as the opening night film at the 29th Hamptons Intl. Film Festival on Oct. 7.

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Besides documenting the devastating physical and emotional impact the pandemic had on hospital staff, the verité film executive produced by Alex Gibney and produced by Leslie Norville and Jenna Millman follows COVID patients who recovered at the hospital for months as well as their family members back home.

Heineman is no stranger to inserting himself into dangerous, life-threatening situations. While making his Oscar nominated docu “Cartel Land” (2016), the helmer filmed shootouts on the streets Mexico; inside meth labs; and drug cartel members torturing people. For “The First Wave,” he knew he would again have to risk his life.

“I didn’t want to tell the story through Zoom or through other means,” he says. “I wanted to be on the ground. But unlike other films that I’ve made in the past, this was not an issue where you could come home and separate yourself from it. We were living the same thing that we were documenting and that’s what made it particularly exhausting and terrifying. You could never turn off.”

While Donald Trump, who was president during “The First Wave” shoot, does not play a part in the film, former governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, does.

“This film started out as a homage to health care workers,” says Heineman. “But it evolved into many, many other things. It’s more than a COVID film. It’s really a portrait of New York during those four months, and whether we like it or not, Andrew Cuomo was an integral part of those months.”

While Cuomo’s daily COVID briefings are a thing of the past, the pandemic remains part of the worldwide landscape. Watching a docu about a virus that is still very much alive and well could arguably be challenging for audiences looking at movies for an escape.

“It’s not the film that everyone is necessarily ready to see, but some people will be,” says Hamptons film fest artistic director David Nugent. “Is it like watching a big crowd pleaser? A movie, like “The Artist” or something that is just undeniably fun? No. But that’s okay. Sometimes we need challenging films that are challenging in a host of different ways but that also really highlight the resilience of the human spirit, which I think this film does.”

Heineman adds that “The First Wave” is a movie that touches on many themes including the human condition. “This is a film about family, love, trauma, overcoming trauma and about how human beings come together in the face of trauma. It’s my hope and my dream that the film can be a part of the healing process for all of us.”

“The First Wave” is among five films that National Geographic is qualifying for Oscar consideration. The other four docs — “Becoming Cousteau,” “Fauci,” “The Rescue” and “Torn” – all had their world premieres in September at the Telluride Film Festival.

But Neon co-founder Tom Quinn, who will release “The First Wave” later this year, isn’t concerned that that the docu didn’t play at one of the four major fall film festivals, which are all Oscar bellwethers.

“Most people thought it was unusual that (Oscar winning doc) ‘CitizenFour’ didn’t premiere anywhere except the New York Film Festival,” observes Quinn. “There’s a release strategy that I think in the elongated Academy year makes sense to premiere later. There’s no real focus about where you premiere later, so I think you can have your cake and eat it, too. New York is very key and central to building this sort of ripple effect around the film, but it’s nice to have an Off Broadway run before you got there.”

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