DOC NYC 2021: ‘The First Wave’ Is a Powerful Reminder COVID-19’s Human Cost

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The First Wave - But Why Tho

After exposing the ISIS horrors (City of Ghosts) and following vigilantes fighting against Mexican drug cartels (Cartel Land), it shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that Matthew Heineman’s next subject is, once again, relevant, complicated, and perilous: COVID-19. His new film The First Wave throws us right at the center of a New York hospital during the first months of the pandemic. 

Naturally, there have been several fiction and non-fiction films tackling this world-changing subject. It’s almost become a genre in itself which means that new proposals could find themselves being overshadowed by the power of those that came before them. And although The First Wave is slightly similar to Hao Wu’s award-winning 76 Days and Yung Chang’s Wuhan Wuhan, it does its own thing, handles a different type of intimacy, and even shows the tough recovery process of those lucky enough to survive.

Among the chaos at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, The First Wave focuses on specific subjects: some are victims fighting for their lives, some are family members waiting at home for the recovery of their loved ones, and others are doctors on the front lines. Each brings a unique sense of urgency and heartbreak to the film. Together, these intimate testimonies forge a grueling experience that can be crushing but, as things slowly return to normalcy, we should not forget. 

Just in the prologue, we see doctors holding an iPad so that a stable patient can try to communicate with his family. Mere minutes later, the same patient dies in the hallway despite the fierce efforts of the medics. This hurt keeps accumulating and the editing reflects the emotional toll: the surprise and fear of the doctors fighting this unknown virus quickly become an overwhelming weight. The trauma can be felt in their voices as they try to explain their feelings of hopelessness and utter fear of bringing the virus to their home thus threatening the lives of their loved ones. Yet, they always try to show warmth toward their patients. When someone makes progress in their recovery, they play The BeatlesHere Comes the Sun to lighten up the mood. They are forced to become family members of the victims; emotional pillars to support and encourage. If one of them dies, the doctors try to make them feel like they were never alone.

Along the way, the editing smartly intertwines footage of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s news conferences to mark the pass of time and give data about the death toll as time goes by. We eventually land in late May and The First Wave takes another dimension, now keeping one eye on the hospital and the other on the George Floyd protests and their impact on the doctors, particularly Dr. Nathalie Dougé, a Haitian American physician who is the heart of this documentary.

We see Dougé finding support in family meetings via Zoom, breaking down in front of the camera, showing her sense of responsibility for her patients, and expressing her exasperation as BIPOC patients take most of the beds and body bags. When the protest erupts, she goes out to the streets. She’s fighting to save Black lives in the hospital while police are freely killing them outside of it.

With The First Wave, Matthew Heineman puts you right at heart of the nightmare COVID-19 to feel just a little bit of the trauma, pain, and desperation of workers, victims, and families. It shows you things you might have not seen or things you avoided seeing. It’s a powerful cinematographic tool to remind us all about the human cost of a crisis, and admire the people who valiantly fought to contain it.

The First Wave is screening In-Person and Virtually as part of DOC NYC 2021. It will be available in select theaters starting November 19.


The First Wave
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    Rating - 8/10
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TL;DR

With The First Wave, Matthew Heineman puts you right at heart of the nightmare COVID-19 to feel just a little bit of the trauma, pain, and desperation of workers, victims, and families. It shows you things you might have not seen or things you avoided seeing. It’s a powerful cinematographic tool to remind us all about the human cost of a crisis, and admire the people who valiantly fought to contain it.