The First Wave
The coronavirus pandemic will be a period in history remembered for the worst reasons. Countless lives around the world were lost as the virus cut through all societies in every corner of the globe, and yet, all the while, frontline health service staff were required to face the dangers head-on, every single day, as they battled to save the lives of those most in need.
If one ever wanted a reminder of the past 18 months and the unprecedented changes to modern life thanks to Covid-19, The First Wave is it, offering an inside look at what the public only hear about, but do not see. Following the everyday movements of the nurses, doctors and physiotherapists over the four months of the first wave in New York City, the documentary thrusts the audience directly into the ICU, sparing no details in depicting the stress-filled, high-risk environment that the peak of infections made hospitals.
Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning filmmaker Matthew Heineman is the man who brought this documentary to life, and with a previous track record such as his, it is clear to see why The First Wave was destined to be a no-holds-barred, harrowing experience. The documentary is certainly not for the squeamish, with incredibly graphic camerawork showing just difficult the work and decision-making can be for the hospital staff, particularly at a pre-vaccine time when all looked utterly hopeless from their perspective. With close personal attention, thanks to some incredibly intimate filming, each nurse and doctor’s face tells a tale, every death slowly taking its toll on the physical and mental wellbeing of all the health services staff.
The First Wave is filmed primarily with an emotive drive, but demonstrates political undertones with interjections from governor Andrew Cuomo’s addresses woven throughout; it even shifts its glance momentarily to the Black Lives Matter protests in May 2020. This mix of high political tension in the midst of one of the worst health disasters in a lifetime injects a powerfully raw authenticity into the 94-minute documentary. There is some slightly confusing contradiction in the actions of one physician, where in one scene she is featured explaining how catastrophic the virus has been and then the next she is at a mass protest hugging strangers, but aside from this, these events do create a deeper historical context to the film with some beautiful moments.
It is the journeys of both a select few critical patients, including NYPD officer Ahmed Ellis and nurse Brussels Jabon, and the doctors that cared for them, that build The First Wave into an emotional rollercoaster that will bring a tear to the viewer’s eye on more than one occasion. More symbolically, however, it is a very important documentary not solely because of its sensitive weight, but because it will be an important tool for reflection in the near and distant future.
The First Wave does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews and interviews from our London Film Festival 2021 coverage here.
For further information about the festival visit the official BFI website here.