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Filming on the Front Lines: “Inside Italy’s Covid War”

“What I wanted to do was tell the story, from the beginning, of the psychological impact this was having on the healthcare workers and on the psyche of the Italian people in general.”

PBS’s Frontline once again delivers a powerful, concise, intimate portrait of a major event and does so in a fraction of the time many projects take to crew up. Inside Italy’s Covid War on PBS stations throughout the US some 14 weeks after portions of Northern Italy were hit by its first overwhelming wave of virus cases.

Viewable in its entirety below, the documentary is an in-depth exploration by filmmaker Sasha Joelle Achilli of the crisis as seen by Dr. Francesca Mangiatordi as she attempts to treat the seemingly endless number of very sick patients and maintain some semblance of life at home with her husband and two children.

Read more: “By a Hair”: The Precarious Fight Against COVID-19 in Cremona, Italy

“It’s a very unfair battle,” she says in the documentary.” We have few weapons. The virus has them all. But with the few we have, we are resisting.”

As reported by PBS station/show co-sponsor WGBH, doctors like Mangiatordi and nurses were facing the horrible situation at Ospedale Maggiore di Cremona of overtaxed ICUs, limited supplies of oxygen and PPE, and were placed in situations where some patients had to be left to die in order to have any hope of treating anyone.

Nurse Cristina Pilati says in the contemporaneously shot film, “Who do we save? We already know that not everyone is going to survive, so let’s save the oxygen for the ones we know that have more chances to be saved. Let’s make a sort of pre-death triage. It was the most terrible thing ever.”

“What I wanted to do,” Achilli, award-winning filmmaker who had experience making documentaries about infectious diseases, says to Frontline, was “tell the story, from the beginning, of the psychological impact this was having on the healthcare workers and on the psyche of the Italian people in general.

“It was a Tuesday morning and I’d sent [Frontline senior producer] Dan Edge a message, because he and I had made a film in West Africa about the Ebola outbreak in 2014. I sent him a random message being like, ‘It’s so weird to see things that we had seen in Sierra Leone and Liberia and Guinea play out in Italy.’

“I’m Italian, so my whole family lives in Italy. And my dad lives in Milan. He has a gym, and he had to close his gym in mid [February]. So he was one of the first businesses that needed to shut down. And then the whole country kind of went into lockdown.

“My sister lives in the countryside in central Italy. She’s a farmer. And all of a sudden, she wasn’t selling her produce to restaurants because they all shut down. I was talking to them a lot and it was affecting me a lot to hear what was happening in Italy. And so I said that to Dan: ‘It’s so strange to hear stories from my family. It’s just surreal.’ And then … that afternoon he sent me a message being like, ‘Do you fancy making a film?’”

She had to make her way to Cremona with the airports shutting down throughout Europe, grabbing some of the last planes out of Italy to Germany and then back to her own country and Rome, where she caught a train to the eye of the Covid storm.

Nurse Cristina Pilati tends to a COVID-19 patient at the Ospedale Maggiore di Cremona, a hospital in Italy’s hard-hit Lombardy region. (Sasha Achilli)

“Most of the masks and gloves and stuff we brought ourselves,” she says. “And then we were given from the hospital, which is super generous, the same PPE that the doctors and nurses were wearing. So we wore that and then in a shift in the hospital, you change your gloves continuously, change your mask. And then at the end of the shift, we would disinfect all of the gear, which probably wasn’t very good for the equipment.

“I was using a zoom lens. I was in the place, and it’s everywhere, right? And all you can do is do the best you can.”

While the most impactful moments too place inside the ICU, the filmmaker notes that she felt it was equally important to capture moments of the healthcare workers’ home life in order to make the story real, not merely clinical.

“I, from the outset, thought there wouldn’t be a film if I wasn’t going to be able to at least film Francesca outside of her work environment,” Achilli explains. “What I wanted to do was tell the story, from the beginning, of the psychological impact this was having on the healthcare workers and on the psyche of the Italian people in general. So I wanted to try and tell the story of Italy through the microcosm of Cremona and that hospital and the people I was meeting, as a kind of metaphor for everybody else, and now the rest of the world, because I’m sure her story is one of so many that are probably really similar.

“So I knew that I needed to do that. And Francesca opened her door to me right away, no questions. She’d even offered for me to stay with her. In order to keep safe, we took all the precautions possible. Obviously, she’s a doctor, so she had her judgments and she risked bringing me into her home as well. She didn’t know me, or where I came from. And then when I started living her life with her, it was as if we were this unit.”

 

Not only is the film a powerful warning and a document of the catastrophic damage Covid-19 is capable of causing, it has also been recognized as a powerful example documentary filmmaking and esteemed cinematographer John Bailey, ASC singled it out for his column in this month’s American Cinematographer magazine:

“The film is filled with many such intimate and moving scenes,” Bailey says. “At a time when the creative and marketing lines between big screen and small screen are blurring, this less-than-one-hour film made for television achieves a dramatic, emotional intensity of which few fictional theatrical movies are capable.”

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