‘The First Wave’ Crew on Editing the COVID Documentary: ‘It Was Just Death, Death, Death’

Matthew Heineman’s “The First Wave” takes audiences to the frontlines as New York became America’s epicenter at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Heineman’s camera follows doctors, nurses and patients in a cinema vérité, as he shows the strength of the human spirit. Behind the scenes, he worked with editors Francisco Bello, Gabriel Rhodes and David Zieff to follow along and start weaving the dailies together.

Rhodes says they went through mountains of footage captured by Heineman at Long Island’s Jewish Medical Center in Queens, N.Y., from March to June in 2020. “There was so much footage, especially in the trauma wards, where it was just death, death, death, death, death, death, and the families being separated by iPads.”

Because the editors and Heineman were living the same thing they were documenting, it hit close to home. “Especially in those early weeks when we knew so little about the disease, how it’s transmitted, how to protect ourselves…the biggest fear of all was that we were that I would get sick, my crew would get sick, and or perhaps worse, that we spread the disease amongst the people we’re filming with,” says Heineman.

With no end in sight, Heineman says he and his crew were driven by the humanity, strength, fortitude and courage that they were witnessing daily, and inspired by those he was filming. Bello was assigned to edit the arc of healthcare worker Alexis Ellis and Ahmed Ellis, her husband and NYPD school safety officer. Ahmed Ellis is seen lying in his hospital bed suffering from COVID in the doc. Says Bello, “By the time the editing process began, he was going to be okay, but when shooting was underway, it wasn’t clear whether he was going to make it. It didn’t make the moments that we caught Ahmed at his most vulnerable, and Alexis as well, any less harrowing.”

A large part of Heineman’s process was his meticulous attention to creating arcs, specific shot choices and pacing. Says Bello, “That rigor was helpful because it did gradually allow us to still have our hearts and our inner emotions tied to it, but have that clinical eye that is required to do the work.”

As the filmmaker was capturing the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement was also happening. Rhodes says he was getting footage back of protests that passed his house that day. “And now I’m working on this footage from it that has to be integrated into this larger pandemic story.”

While there was no roadmap of where this story would end, Rhodes says, “Matt would tell me what was happening in the field and where stories were headed. You don’t have that map, but you have pieces, and it would take two, maybe three months to understand a bit better what that larger picture was.”

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