The First Wave
With exclusive access inside one of New York’s hardest hit hospital systems during the terrifying first four months of the pandemic, Oscar®-nominated and Emmy® Award-winning director Matthew Heineman’s THE FIRST WAVE spotlights the everyday heroes at the epicenter of COVID-19 as they come together to fight one of the greatest threats the world has ever encountered. Leaving a devastating trail of death and despair, this once-in-a-century pandemic changed the very fabric of our daily lives and exposed long-standing inequities in our society. Employing his signature approach of character-driven cinema vérité, Heineman embeds with a group of doctors, nurses and patients on the frontlines as they all desperately try to navigate the crisis. With each distinct storyline serving as a microcosm through which we can view the emotional and societal impacts of the pandemic, THE FIRST WAVE is a testament to the strength of the human spirit.
Meet the Filmmakers
Matthew HeinemanDIRECTOR, PRODUCER, DIRECTORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY, EDITOR
Matthew Heineman is an Academy Award®-nominated and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker. The Sundance Film Festival called Heineman “one of the most talented and exciting documentary filmmakers working today”, while Anne Thompson of Indiewire wrote that Heineman is a "respected and gifted filmmaker who combines gonzo fearlessness with empathetic sensitivity.”
Upcoming, he directed, produced, shot and edited THE FIRST WAVE, a feature documentary film with exclusive access inside one of New York City’s hardest-hit hospital systems during the harrowing first four months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Employing Heineman’s signature approach of character-driven cinéma vérité, he and his team embeds with a group of doctors, nurses and patients on the frontlines as they face one of the greatest threats the world has ever encountered. With each of their distinct storylines serving as a microcosm through which we can view the emotional and societal impacts of the pandemic, THE FIRST WAVE is ultimately a testament to the strength of the human spirit. Neon will release the film in theaters later this year ahead of a broadcast premiere on National Geographic in 172 countries.
Most recently, Heineman directed Amazon’s THE BOY FROM MEDELLÍN, an astonishingly intimate portrait of one of the biggest international music superstars of our time. The documentary follows J Balvin as he prepares for the most important concert of his career—a sold-out stadium show in his hometown of Medellín, Colombia. But as the performance draws ever closer, the streets explode with growing political unrest, forcing the Latin GRAMMY®-winning musician to wrestle with his responsibility as an artist to his country and his legions of fans around the globe. Shot entirely in the dramatic week leading up to the concert, THE BOY FROM MEDELLÍN gives us unprecedented access to the “Prince of Reggaeton,” and provides an immersive look into one of the most pivotal and emotionally charged moments of his life. Amazon released the documentary on May 7, 2021.
Additionally, Heineman recently co-directed with Matthew Hamachek the two-part documentary TIGER, which he also executive produced. The documentary, which was released by HBO in two parts in January 2021, offers a revealing look at the rise, fall, and epic comeback of global icon Tiger Woods.
In 2019, he received a nomination for Outstanding Directorial Achievement of a First Time Feature Film Director from the Directors Guild of America for his narrative debut, A PRIVATE WAR—making Heineman and Martin Scorsese the only filmmakers ever nominated for both narrative and documentary DGA Awards. A PRIVATE WAR stars Jamie Dornan, Tom Hollander, Stanley Tucci, and Oscar-nominee Rosamund Pike as legendary war reporter Marie Colvin. The film premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival before being released nationwide by Aviron Pictures. It was a New York Times Critics’ Pick, and Variety hailed the film as “Heineman’s astonishing narrative debut” and “an incredibly sophisticated, psychologically immersive film.” A PRIVATE WAR also earned two Golden Globe® nominations for Best Actress and Best Original Song.
Heineman directed and executive produced THE TRADE, a Showtime docu-series that chronicles a different topic each season, from the opioid crisis to human trafficking, through the eyes of those most affected. It was described by The Hollywood Reporter as “a thriller…like TRAFFIC only current and real”, while the New York Times said, “Heineman has shown an uncanny ability to gain access to hard-to-reach people and places." Both seasons of the show premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and received overwhelming critical acclaim and awards recognition, including Best Episodic Series at the 2018 International Documentary Association Awards for season one and two News & Documentary Emmy Awards for season two, including Outstanding Direction for Heineman.
His documentary film CITY OF GHOSTS, which follows a group of citizen-journalists exposing the horrors of ISIS, premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival and was distributed worldwide by Amazon Studios before having its broadcast premiere on A&E. Heineman won his second Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary Award from the DGA for the film—one of only three directors to win the prestigious honor twice. CITY OF GHOSTS also won the Courage Under Fire Award from the International Documentary Association “in recognition of conspicuous bravery in the pursuit of truth” and was listed on over 20 critics and year-end lists for Best Documentary of 2017. The film was also nominated for a BAFTA Award, PGA Award, IDA Award, and Primetime Emmy for Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking.
CARTEL LAND, which explores vigilantes taking on the Mexican drug cartels, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and won three Primetime Emmy Awards, including Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking and Best Cinematography. The film premiered in the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, where Heineman won the Best Director Award and Special Jury Prize for Cinematography. CARTEL LAND was also awarded the Courage Under Fire Award, the DGA Award for Outstanding Achievement in Documentary, and the George Polk Award in Journalism. The film was released theatrically nationwide by The Orchard and had its broadcast premiere on A&E.
He previously co-directed and produced the feature-length, Emmy-nominated documentary ESCAPE FIRE: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare; collaborated for two years on the Emmy-nominated HBO series, THE ALZHEIMER’S PROJECT; and also directed and produced OUR TIME, his first documentary about what it's like to be young in America.
Heineman, a 2005 graduate of Dartmouth College, is based in New York City.
Jenna Millman is an Emmy Award-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker whose reporting has taken her around the world, from Yemen to Zimbabwe and into the depths of dark unmarked edit rooms from Brooklyn to Paris.
Millman produced TIGER, HBO’s critically acclaimed two-part documentary from 2020, exploring the rise, fall, and epic comeback of global icon Tiger Woods, directed by Matthew Hamachek and Matthew Heineman. Her collaboration with Heineman then continued, executive producing THE BOY FROM MEDELLÍN, a feature documentary for Amazon, following global reggaeton star J Balvin as he prepared for a pivotal homecoming concert in Medellín, Colombia.
Most recently, Millman has been honored to produce THE FIRST WAVE, also alongside Heineman. With exclusive access to one of New York’s hardest-hit hospitals, the feature documentary is an unflinching and intimate portrait of the healthcare workers, patients and families who found themselves on the frontlines of the fight against COVID-19.
Previously, as a senior producer and showrunner for ABC News, Millman helmed investigative, international and feature reporting for the storied current affairs show “Nightline.” She also oversaw special projects, including the worldwide No. 1 podcast and primetime documentary “The Dropout,” and the award-winning mini-series “Back to the Beginning with Christiane Amanpour.” Her work has been recognized with two Emmy Awards (14 nominations), a Dupont-Columbia Silver Baton, the Deadline Award, and a National Press Club Award, among others.
Jenna holds a B.A. in Russian Studies from Brown University, and after stints in London, Moscow, and Los Angeles, she now splits her time between her hometown of New York and Durham, North Carolina, with her neuroscientist husband and 4-year-old son who currently believes he is Spider-Man.
Leslie Norville is an award-winning producer whose films have screened at film festivals around the globe, including SXSW, Tribeca, Hot Docs and IDFA and on various networks including Sundance Channel, PBS and VH1. Norville’s credits include the feature documentary A BALLERINA’S TALE about Misty Copeland, the first African American principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre; BROOKLYN BOHEME; DISDAIN THE MUNDANE, part of ESPN’s Emmy Award®-winning “30 for 30” shorts series; FINDING THE FUNK, co-executive produced by GRAMMY Award®-winner Questlove; and ANY GIVEN DAY, which premiered at Hot Docs 2021. She is an alumnus of the Sundance Documentary Creative Producing Fellowship. Her forthcoming documentary projects include THE FIRST WAVE for Neon/National Geographic, directed by Academy Award®-nominated and Emmy Award®-winning filmmaker Matthew Heineman, and the eight-part series for CBC, “BLACK LIFE: A CANADIAN HISTORY.”
Meet the Film Subjects
Dr. Nathalie DougéPARTICIPANT
Born and raised in the Bronx, Dr. Nathalie Dougé is a New York-based, board-certified physician in internal medicine. A first-generation Haitian American, she is the first in her family to become a physician, receiving her medical degree from the Penn State College of Medicine. During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York, she served as a hospitalist and assistant professor in the Department of Medicine at the Long Island Jewish Medical Center, an affiliate of Northwell Health. Nathalie currently lives in Queens, New York, and is a doting dog mom to her rescue, Mars, who she believes is one of her guardian angels in animal form.
Ahmed and Alexis EllisPARTICIPANTS
Ahmed Ellis, a 36-year-old NYPD school safety officer and first-generation American, was born and raised in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, New York. He has been married to his wife, Alexis, for eight years and has two children, Austin (5) and Ava (2). The youngest of four, Ahmed spends much of his time with his tight-knit family, who originated from the small South American country of Guyana. Ahmed and Alexis,who works as a child life specialist within hospitals, were both considered essential workers and therefore continued to be called to work during the early days of the pandemic. After contracting COVID-19, Ahmed was hospitalized at Long Island Jewish Medical Center for two months.
Kellie Wunsch has been a registered nurse since 2009 and was part of the mobile critical care team at Long Island Jewish Medical Center. She grew up in Queens, New York, and later moved to Long Island, where she began working at LIJ and met her husband Tom. During the first wave of the pandemic, Kellie volunteered to be on the rapid response team that was dispatched throughout the hospital when patients became critically unstable. Like many healthcare workers, the pandemic took an emotional toll on Kellie. In the summer of 2020, she made the tough decision to turn in her scrubs and now works in the Bed Management Office at LIJ. Kellie cherishes every moment she gets with her husband and two young daughters. She is expecting her third child in November 2021.
Born in Davao City, Philippines, Brussels and her family emigrated to the U.S. in 2000. She has been a licensed practical nurse since 2016 and comes from a long Filipino tradition of nursing. Most of her family, including her parents, husband and sister, are also nurses. In the spring of 2020, Brussels worked at Northwell Health’s Stern Family Center for Rehabilitation when she—and eventually almost her entire family—contracted COVID-19. Pregnant with her second child, Brussels became gravely ill and was forced to have an emergency C-section before being put on a ventilator at Long Island Jewish Medical Center.
Karl Arabian is a physical therapist at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens, New York. When LIJ became one of the hotspots for COVID-19 in New York City, Karl was a new physical therapist thrust into a front-line role. Over the course of the pandemic, Karl helped to guide many patients on the long road to recovery. While Ahmed Ellis was under his care, they formed a tight bond and remain friends to this day. He moonlights as a deep-sea fisherman.
“MIRACULOUS…A courageous and astonishing cinematic time capsule”
“Heineman's masterfully crafted film is a work of high-impact drama”
THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER
“A breathtaking testament to the fight to live, the calling to heal, and the power of human connection”
THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER
“A concentrated and intimate look at the bottomless, unimaginable depths of loss as well as the indefatigable reservoir of hope that sustains humanity during its darkest moments”
“Harrowing … Extraordinary. Heineman is offering a public service by reminding us of the worst of days, but still offering hope of a way out — as long as we heed the warnings. The more opportunities to see it, the better.”
Directed by Matthew Heineman
Produced by Matthew Heineman, Jenna Millman, Leslie Norville