2021 AFI Festival Review: The First Wave is the must-see documentary of the decade

Director: Matthew Heineman
Plot: A documentary following nurses, doctors, and administrators as they respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

I like to watch movies for escape. Often, we are smacked in the face with a bit of reality while we watch a film, but it doesn’t always have to come from a documentary. We can see reality in stories of those that think like us. However, the current charged climate of the world has us seeing films being made about the times we have faced and continue to face, daily, in the case of The First Wave of COVID.

We always hear from both sides of the political climate regarding this virus, whether it’s being ‘weaponized’ by one side or ‘fear’ by the other. The heart of this entire pandemic has been men and women witnessing families lose their lives. Yet, we don’t talk nearly enough about these heroes, who face death in the eyes so many times daily.

We often see superheroes like Captain America, Batman, or even the ever-popular conversation right now with Spider-Man on the big screen. Still, we rarely talk about the ones that live amongst us. For example, we met Dr. Nathalie Dougé, a doctor that has been on the frontline of COVID in her city of New York since the start of the pandemic. Throughout this film, we witness a woman, one of whom has so many obstacles to face in her daily life, come head to head with something that she wasn’t expecting: the virus that crippled so many of us.

Doctors like Nathalie Dougé went to work every day knowing that she would look into the face of another patient who may never see their loved ones again. One minute she’s telling a family that their loved one is showing signs of improvement, the next, she’s telling them that they are gone. We witnessed so many patients throughout this documentary take their last breath. I credit director Matthew Heineman for not pulling any punches with this film. We see men and women like us struggle to breathe, struggle to make words and even to show us the struggle of the loved ones only being able to offer support through a device. Heineman puts us in the center of this entire virus.

I am a 35-year-old man, so upon hearing the story of Ahmed Ellis, a 35-year-old father of two, one day, he was the latest to face the battle of COVID. You see a man who looks like he is in a vegetative state, non-functional, struggling even to keep his eyes open. I was drawn to his story, but I had so much reflection here because Ahmed could’ve been me. I could’ve been in that hospital bed, alone, fighting, while my family watched on an iPad. My one wish for anyone watching this documentary is to watch Ahmed see themselves and realize, it too, could have been them.

Of course, you expect to watch him like the many others lose their lives at some point in the film, but he was one of the few success stories we witnessed in our journey. I watched Ahmed walk across the stage after this film and it broke me down, because the man I watched on that screen shouldn’t be here. He is an inspiration to never, ever give up.

This type of film is hard to review because of how RIGHT NOW it is. We don’t see Nathalie Dougé just face COVID in the face, but in the height of this pandemic, George Floyd was murdered. So Nathalie, who was out here saving lives, sees someone who looks like her have their life taken by the hands of those who are to protect us.

The First Wave is one of the most important documentaries of all time. I urge anyone, no matter your political side, no matter how you feel about COVID, to watch this documentary. Watch these people live through the most challenging time of our generation and try to deny just how real this virus was and still is. You might not have felt the effects yet, but THANKFUL you haven’t. Be THANKFUL you haven’t lost anyone to it. Be THANKFUL you don’t have to see your family die through an iPad. Be THANKFUL you aren’t facing death in the eyes daily like Dr. Nathalie Dougé and the other doctors face daily. Be THANKFUL you are alive.

In closing, thank you to the real superheroes like Dr. Nathalie Dougé, who are on the frontline; without you, this country would be nothing.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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