Documenting Covid’s ‘First Wave’

When Covid hit New York City hard in the spring of 2020, Darien native Matthew Heineman was there to document it at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens. Now his resulting film, “The First Wave,” has been short-listed for an Oscar in the Best Documentary category.

One of the films that has been short-listed for this year’s Academy Award for Best Documentary is “The First Wave,” a study of how health-care workers at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens faced the difficult first four months of Covid-19. The film is directed and co-produced by Matthew Heineman, who had been previously nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar for his feature “Cartel Land,” which explored the actions taken by vigilantes against the Mexican drug cartel.

Heineman, who has a Fairfield County connection — he is a Darien native who attended New Canaan Country School (Class of 1998) — recently spoke to us about “The First Wave” and his goals for this film:

What inspired you to create this film?

“I woke up in March 2020, like everybody did and was terrified by this potential tsunami that was about to sweep over us. And I felt this enormous obligation to try to document it, to try to put a human face to it. 

“I reached out to hospitals all around the country and ended up getting access to a hospital in Queens, in my backyard here in New York. I spent the next four months attempting to put a human face to this thing that we were trying to understand. “

How did you get the hospital to allow your camera crew inside during the early days of the pandemic? 

“I think they felt an obligation or necessity to try to show the world what was actually happening inside hospitals. We were being so inundated with stats and headlines and misinformation, so they felt it was really important to show firsthand what was happening.”

How did the doctors and the other hospital staff react when you first showed up with the cameras and began filming?

“There was a host of different reactions. Overall, people were grateful that someone was there to document this historic, life-altering time.”

What were some of the more interesting experiences you had during the production of this film? 

“It’s hard to say. We naively thought that we were going to film for two or three weeks and then this would all be over. Little did we know that we’d be filming for four months straight — and that two years later, we would still be living with it. 

“It was definitely the hardest film I’ve ever made, by far, and it was also the most terrifying. But I think despite the horror that we saw every day, despite the large amount of deaths that we witnessed, I think the overall, overwhelming feeling that we had was inspiration — being inspired by the incredible dedication and the passion of the health-care workers that we witnessed every single day. I think that’s what pushed us to keep making this film, despite all the different challenges.”

How did the hospital staff react when they finally got to see the finished film?

“It’s been an amazing response to the film. Screening the film for them has been extremely emotional. I think people felt it was somewhat cathartic to watch the film, especially with others, when (one of the) most insidious aspects of Covid was in isolating everybody.” 

Most of your cinematic output has been nonfiction films as opposed to narrative features. What is it about the nonfiction genre that you find attractive?

“I didn’t wake up one day and decide what genre to enter. I love making docs. I think it’s an incredibly powerful medium. I’ve tried throughout my career to try to take big subjects and humanize them whether it’s the Mexican drug cartels or ISIS in Syria or human trafficking or, in this case, Covid. It’s about trying to take this thing that is often plastered across headlines and trying to bring some humanity and deeply personal stories to the discussion.”

What are the next projects that you’re working on?

“One of them is a film about the end of the war in Afghanistan. I was there throughout the summer.”

It is safe to say that must have been pretty scary, yes?

“Yeah, it definitely was.” 

Your film is short-listed for the Academy Award, and one of your earlier films was Oscar- nominated. At the risk of sounding like a fanboy, what is it like to be an Oscar nominee and to attend the Oscar ceremony?

“Humbling. We don’t make films to get awards, but it is nice to get recognition. If we get nominated, it helps to amplify and increase the amount of discussion and eyeballs around the film, and that’s always my principal goal.”

The 94th Academy Awards will be presented March 27. 

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