Matt Heineman was nominated for an Oscar thanks to his previous movie, "Cartel Land," about the drug war in Mexico. But he calls "The First Wave" the hardest movie he's ever had to make.
His documentary has been called "miraculous" and a "must-see" by critics, but the best reviews have come from doctors, nurses, health care professionals, and their patients -- who are featured in the new film.
Some of them were honored guests at a recent premiere oat The Beacon Theater on the Upper West Side.
Cheers greeted them after the screening before a panel discussion hosted by Byron Pitts from ABC News.
The affair was an emotional experience for one of the stars, Dr. Nathalie Douge, who said she had a "panic attack" the first time she saw the movie and had to re-live so many traumatic events.
Still, she has only praise for the documentary's director.
"Matt's done an amazing job capturing the human essence," she said. "For so long, people have been focusing on the virus, the statistics, the politics, but not the people, not the individual lives that are connected."
In the course of the film, the audience watches as Ahmed Ellis almost dies due to COVID-19.
"Seeing it for the first time, it was very emotional," he said with tears in his eyes.
Today, he's the picture of health, but "The First Wave" is a reminder of how sick he was, and his wife Alexis wants us to know how hard health care workers fought to save him.
"It also shows people who don't have somebody who was affected by COVID what exactly was going on in the hospitals," she said.
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The Long Island Jewish Medical Center granted access to film crews after every other hospital in the area turned Heineman down.
"There was so much courage and fortitude and love and humanity that we witnessed every day," he said. "And I really hope that this film provides a vehicle for us all to reflect on what we've been through."
However, making his movie made a tough job even tougher for Nurse Kellie Wunsch, who admitted there were days she just wanted to kick the cameras out. She said her husband urged her to remain and be part of history.
"Now that I did it, I feel like I'm part of something huge," she said. "That my children will be able to watch in years to come, and I am so fortunate and so glad I stuck it out."
"The First Wave" is in theaters now.
It's from National Geographic Documentary Films, owned by the same parent company as this ABC station.