Matthew Heineman wanted to take the politics out of the pandemic with his National Geographic documentary The First Wave.
You won’t see Trump or even Dr. Fauci in this documentary, which is now streaming on Hulu. The First Wave follows doctors and patients at a Northwell Health hospital in Queens, New York during the first four months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Heineman spoke about his experience making the film on a recent episode of the Factual America podcast.
“It’s just so sad to me how polarized this issue’s become, and how it’s really a virus, a pandemic of the unvaccinated at this point, and both globally in the disparities with which vaccines have been disseminated, and then with also within our own country of just the misinformation and the echo chambers that we all live in. And the fact that predominantly those who die in hospitals in the US, at least, are the unvaccinated,” Heineman told Factual America host Matthew Sherwood.
“I hope that this film not only shows the realities in an apolitical way — there’s no Trump in my film, there’s no Dr. Fauci — I really tried to take away the politics and just show the human beings at the center of it, and how they were affected, and the realities of all that,” he added. “So, I hope that the film can provide a vehicle through which we can reflect on all that we’ve been through. What have we learned? What have we learned as a society? What have we learned as individuals? And how can we apply that knowledge to where we are now and where we go in the future?”
For Heineman, The First Wave was a challenge unlike any he’d ever experienced making films before. The director was previously nominated for an Oscar for best documentary feature in 2016 for Cartel Land, and he’s also directed films including the 2012 documentary Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare, the 2018 documentary City of Ghosts, and the 2017 drama A Private War starring Rosamund Pike.
“It was definitely the hardest film I’ve ever made. I’ve been in war zones around the world, and I’ve told difficult stories,” Heineman said. “When you’re in a war zone, there’s sort of spurts of terror and danger, but there’s a lot of boredom, too. And then, when you come home, you can sort of separate your brain a bit, from all that is happening. With The First Wave and making The First Wave, you know, we’re living the same thing that we’re documenting. It was a very, very full-on experience, for a long period of time, you could never turn off. And that was hard, you know, all the things you take for granted in making documentaries — putting a Lav mic on somebody’s shirt, putting the camera down on a table, eating, going to the bathroom, breathing — these are all ways to get the virus, these are all ways to spread the virus.”
He and his crew always “had to be vigilant” he said.
“You can never turn off. So that definitely took a toll over time. But I think — and I can speak on behalf of the amazing team that worked on this as well as myself — we were deeply inspired by what we were seeing every day, despite the horror of it all, despite the sadness, despite the death. I think we were inspired by the wonderful acts of humanity and love and care and courage and fortitude that we witnessed, day in and day out. And so, I didn’t go to bed at night feeling sad about the state of the world, despite the fact that there was a lot to be sad and scared about. I went to bed at night feeling really inspired by what we’re witnessing. And I think if I was going to distill the film down to one thing, it’s about how human beings come together in the face of crisis. And that was a really beautiful thing to witness.”
The First Wave is now streaming on Hulu. Here are the timestamps from the Factual America interview:
00:00 – The trailer for The First Wave.
04:04 – What the film is about.
05:25 – What motivated Matthew to make the film.
08:18 – How he gained access to the hospital.
10:40 – The uncertainty he had going into this project.
13:14 – How they moved from filming healthcare workers to patients.
18:03 – A clip from the film showing how things escalated at the start of the pandemic.
20:31 – How Matthew incorporated the Black Lives Matter protests into the film.
22:01 – The emotional toll making the documentary had on Matthew and the film crew.
24:56 – The lessons he hopes people will take from this film.
29:11 – The different filmmakers who were involved in the creation of this film.
31:58 – The next projects Matthew is working on.
33:45 – A clip from the film showing the toll the pandemic has had on families.
Main Image: A photo from The First Wave courtesy of Factual America/Nat Geo.