THB #32: The First Wave


I’ve done over 2000 DP/30 long-form video interviews. A few subjects have cried. But today, I somehow managed to choke myself up in an interview for the first time, talking to Matthew Heineman, director of The First Wave, which premieres tomorrow night (Thursday, Nov 18) at DOC NYC.

It has been an excellent year for documentaries. Some are amongst the best ever in their areas of interest. The Rescue brings so many skills developed over time by Oscar-winners Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin to the table, bringing life to what could otherwise never be seen without artistry and digital magic. Summer of Soul combines the concert doc and a historical research doc brilliantly from first-time director Questlove. Introducing, Selma Blair is like no other celebrity doc ever, transforming someone we knew only as an actress into the kind of human any of us would want to be. Edgar Wright and Todd Haynes brought their non-doc skill sets to docs with amazing results. Val is really a work of autobiography by Val Kilmer, taking that genre to another level. Pray Away and Procession are a critical combination in the examination of what people and religion force on young people and how the scars never quite heal. Bring Your Own Brigade is an amazing look, less at the fire that destroys here in California, but at the very human reasons why it keeps happening.

And there are so many more. Sincerely… you could spend all your viewing time on excellent docs and have almost no time left for baking shows, Squid Game or Succession.

But The First Wave.

My chest is tightening just thinking about it.

It’s the conversation that you desperately want to have with your loved one, but are finding excuses not to have.

As these other docs, which are undeniable in their own right, are get discussed during award season, The First Wave covers ground that simply cannot be topped. And who would want to? It is the first wave of COVID in New York City.

We have all lived through this experience in the last 20 months, from so many perspectives. We must all go back and remember that we lived through it… and that we survived. Millions, including over 700,000 Americans, did not. But we did.

As I am writing this, the words of the filmmaker are echoing though my head… that he knows that this film will scare a lot of people away from ever seeing it. And I admit, The Sparks Brothers is a lot more fun.

But without pushing the metaphor too hard, The First Wave is the Schindler’s List of documentaries this decade. Except that this is just 2 years after this unnatural natural holocaust and this is a documentary, not a work of drama.

And it’s not a social studies class. What is so powerful about the film is that it leads with its heart. It’s the nurses, doctors, patients, families, and everyone who had this moment in history smash them in the face out of nowhere.

We are, as a species, remarkable. The natural skills and resilience of the human being are underappreciated. But to have all of the power that we assume is ours suddenly challenged by a disease that is not understood… to deal with symptoms that seem almost alive, shifting to keep the disease, not the human, alive… to witness the world’s great city brought to its knees…

We don’t need to linger in it. We don’t need it to be part of our every day. It is our nature to choose to forget… to look away… to rework perspective. But we need to remember. And we need to remember clearly.

The First Wave is a movie that will remind you as deeply as one can feel about your humanity… our strength and our vulnerability.

It is a must see. It is a forever doc. The experience of it will make you better.

Until tomorrow…