The Race to Make the First Coronavirus Documentary Has Begun

Alex Gibney is producing one. How to Survive a Plague’s David France is directing another. At least 20 documentarians agree: “It is the most important story of my lifetime.” Photo: Nina Westervelt/Shutterstock/Nina Westervelt/Shutterstock

Earlier this year, when the novel coronavirus was largely limited to China and Stateside pandemic concerns were still in their relative infancy, filmmaker Matthew Heineman became “completely obsessed” with the emerging health crisis, unable to think about much else. Then America’s infection rate began to soar, and the director — who was nominated for an Oscar and won an Emmy for his 2015 Mexican-drug-trade exposé Cartel Land — decided he would engage with the object of his fascination in the only way he knew how: by making a documentary about COVID-19.

That project, executive-produced by Academy Award–winning filmmaker Alex Gibney, is now several weeks into shooting, despite the exposure to viral peril every person directly involved with its filming faces. “I felt like it is the most important story of my lifetime,” Heineman tells Vulture. “So I set out to embed within hospitals in New York City and put a human face to the amazing, heroic, heartbreaking work that doctors and nurses and administrators here are doing. How they are fighting 24 hours a day, seven days a week. How they are navigating through uncharted waters without even blinking. How they are doing everything they can to keep people alive.”

While much of the country is still confined under curve-flattening measures and Hollywood productions remain effectively padlocked, Heineman is hardly the only director to dive headfirst into a real-time filmmaking response to the global pandemic. At least 20 coronavirus-related documentary projects of various lengths and formats are either currently shooting or seeking funding, spearheaded by acclaimed documentarians like Laura Nix (Inventing Tomorrow), Janet Tobias (No Place on Earth), Drea Cooper (Flint Town), Liz Garbus (What Happened, Miss Simone?), and David France (How to Survive a Plague). Get Me Roger Stone producer Jihan Robinson is also working on a COVID-related project at Quibi, and Ron Howard is directing an as yet untitled doc about the chef José Andrés and his humanitarian organization, World Central Kitchen, for National Geographic.

While most of the filmmakers are keeping specific details regarding their respective projects quiet for the time being, all of those chronicling the virus’ impact have found themselves scrambling to adapt to the new vagaries of moviemaking: forgoing face-to-face interviews in favor of conversations conducted via Zoom, FaceTime, and Skype; establishing ad hoc sterilization protocols for handing off hard drives of B-roll footage.

“There are all these little, tiny practical things,” Laura Gabbert (City of Gold, Netflix’s Ugly Delicious) explains. “I have camera people out in the field, shooting from a safe distance, shooting shuttered restaurants, all with a safety protocol in mind. How do you get the footage somewhere safely? I’ve been getting [hard] drives from my DP. He leaves it at my door. We let it sit for a couple of days. We sterilize it. There’s a new protocol for everything.”

Amid the collective rush to make sense of a global emergency that has killed over 200,000 people to date, plunged the world into isolation, put millions of Americans out of work, and become a singular focus of the 24-hour news cycle, this spate of nonfiction film projects represents perhaps one of the greatest massing of documentaries to be focused around a single subject — coming together within the span of just a few short months no less.

Gabbert, whose most recent documentary, Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles, was scheduled to premiere at the now-postponed Tribeca Film Festival earlier this month, is currently in production on a food-related project examining “the impact of COVID not just on restaurants but on suppliers: the farmers, the fishermen, the dairy farmers.” According to Gabbert, documenting events as they unfold — as opposed to taking a more retrospective approach to the subject and collecting information once the pandemic recedes from public consciousness — has distinct advantages. “There’s a rawness,” Gabbert says. “There’s something very different when you do an hour and a half sit-down interview versus when we’re recording conversations daily, weekly, monthly. There is just an immediacy. A lot of people are in crisis right now. It changes week to week for people. We are able to capture the crisis as it’s happening.”

In mid-March, British journalist and documentarian Lucy Sherriff began recording a video journal of her immediate reactions to American governmental responses to the coronavirus. That vlog has since evolved into an exploration of how “ordinary people” around the world are dealing with the pandemic, which she describes as “one of the most important events that is going to happen in our lifetime” in a treatment currently being submitted to potential financial backers. Since embarking on her project, the CNN and BBC contributor has enlisted a network of around 40 contributors in locations around the world, including Tibet, Spain, Turkey, the Gaza Strip, and the U.K., to submit video diary entries explaining how the pandemic has touched their day-to-day existences, and she has conducted Skype interviews with disease experts and epidemiologists on COVID-19’s spread.

“It’s a mixture of ‘How is this impacting peoples’ personal lives?’ and ‘Who are the people who are stepping up to do something?’” Sherriff says. “It’s contrasting the differing reactions in how governments are dealing with [COVID-19] across the world, but also showing that people are experiencing the same things. I’m experiencing the same thing that the woman sending me a video diary in India is experiencing. ‘Oh God, I can’t find any eggs.’ ‘Oh my God, I’m going out for the first time in a week, and I’m so excited to go to the supermarket!’”

It may seem like a certain gold-rush mentality is driving these documentarians, but Gabbert and other insiders who spoke to Vulture on background say that some studio-, network-, and streaming-service acquisitions executives have already indicated there may be a less than robust market for coronavirus-related nonfiction features once quarantining measures lift and Hollywood attempts to return to business as usual.

“I’ve heard the argument that no one is going to want to watch something about COVID when this is over,” Gabbert says. “I don’t believe that. [My movie] is about the economics of restaurants, the supply chain. It’s about the personal stories, the hopes and fears, of people being resourceful and adaptive while other people are closing up shop. It’s such a human story. But I have been hearing from a lot of people I’m talking to, the buyers, saying they’re worried about buying COVID-related things.”

Heineman earned his professional bona fides — including a Courage Under Fire Award from the International Documentary Association in recognition of “bravery in the pursuit of the truth” — through repeated acts of journalistic daring. For Cartel Land, the filmmaker spent more than a year following an American vigilante group and a Mexican paramilitary brigade fighting against Mexican drug cartels on both sides of the border. For 2017’s City of Ghosts, he embedded with a group of citizen journalists exposing the horrors of ISIS in war-torn Syria. But while taking care to heap praise on the selflessness shown by the medical professionals at the center of his current film, Heineman describes his COVID-19-related project (which is currently intended as a feature film but could grow into a multipart limited series) as the “hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

“In making Cartel Land or City of Ghosts, there were definitely scary, intense experiences,” Heineman says. “But for the most part, coming home to New York City, you can separate your brain a bit from what you experienced and decompress in a way. One of the most insidious and difficult parts of making a film like this is [the coronavirus] is omnipresent. It’s around you at all times. It’s invisible, so you can’t escape it. You can’t let your guard down. You can’t ever stop thinking about it.”

And while he is aware of the other documentarians — some of whom are his friends — currently converging on related issues, Heineman feels that a multitude of coronavirus coverage in months, or even years, to come provides a valuable public service. “I’m not trying to race and make the film that comes out first. I’m looking to make a film that hopefully stands the test of time,” he says. “It’s so great that there are a lot of filmmakers and journalists and storytellers of all shapes and sizes telling this story. It’s imperative we tell this story. It’s imperative we tell this story in different ways.”

The Race to Make the First Coronavirus Documentary Has Begun