As coronavirus spread, Paul Trotman asked 110 frontline healthcare workers how they were coping. The results, caught on tape, play out like a horror film.
In February of 2020, Paul Trotman’s partner came home from a meeting at her local Lions Club. She told him they were planning their next meet-up in a few months. Trotman’s ears pricked up. He’d been hearing early warning signs about the spread of coronavirus from his friends and colleagues working in hospitals overseas.
“I thought, ‘Hmm, this is going to be big,'” he says.
Thanks to his contacts, Trotman, a full-time doctor and part-time film-maker based in the South Island, had advance warning that Covid-19 would soon hit Aotearoa. Lockdowns to curb its spread were likely on the way. His partner agreed that there wasn’t going to be another Lions meeting any time soon.
He also knew he wasn’t going to be able to work. Trotman, 56, lives in Dunedin but travels to work in hospitals in Balclutha and Gore. He’s immunocompromised, so catching coronavirus wouldn’t be good for him – or his patients.
Sitting out the start of the pandemic at home, Trotman wondered how he could pass the time. I [was] frustrated because I couldn’t work,” he says. Via Facebook, a friend told him: “Do what you normally do, and make a documentary.”
Trotman’s made several medical movies before, including Donated to Science, a controversial 2011 film about organ donors. But he was stuck at home with lockdowns looming. How could he make a movie from there? He tried to turn the camera on himself, living through a lockdown. “It didn’t quite fly,” he says.
Then Trotman had a brainwave. “I’d already started talking to friends overseas about what was happening to them,” he says. “I can’t work, I can’t do my bit, but I can tell everybody else what my colleagues are doing … I suddenly realised I just need to talk to the healthcare workers on the frontlines.”
He began by asking colleagues to chat via Zoom. He teed up as many interviews as he could, then pressed record. “Any lead I could find to someone who was quoted in a newspaper, appeared on the telly or was a friend of a friend, I contacted,” he says.
The film began to consume him. “I’d get up in the morning. I’d look at my list. I’d go, ‘Right, OK, I’ve got this person in New York, this person in Spain.” Over the next six months, he interviewed more than 110 people, all of them working on the frontlines of a global pandemic.
Often, his subjects are on the job, in hospital, stethoscopes around their necks, masks hanging off ears, swipe cards pinned to pockets, as they talk. So many different faces, and accents, show up, Trotman may have the year’s most diverse film on his hands.
The results are equal parts harrowing and haunting. Comprised mostly of talking heads, Trotman catches emotional medical staff in the middle of an unprecedented disaster, struggling to catch up, catch their breath, comprehend the magnitude.
His film, Behind the Mask, plays out like a fictional disaster epic, a found-footage pandemic film, or, as Trotman describes it, “endless horror”. Unfortunately, it’s all too real.
Across the film’s 90 minutes, doctors describe how they watch dozens of patients die every day, and nurses reveal how they cope with daily heartbreak. Staff shake as they tell their worst stories: watching young, fit people die of the virus, the look in people’s eyes as they realise their time is up, and dealing with grief-stricken family members who can’t be there to say goodbye.
As Trotman continued his interviews, similar themes began to emerge. “Fear and anxiety was pretty much it,” he says. “They’d say, ‘I’m scared of getting Covid and taking it home and infecting my family,’ ‘I can’t get enough PPE,’ ‘It’s all a complete mess,’ and, ‘It’s insane.'” Many of the people Trotman spoke to got Covid themselves. All recovered physically, but the emotional wounds might take more time.
Because he talked to them in the moment, as the pandemic was unfolding, Trotman’s interviews cover the full range of emotions. One, involving a rest home nurse about the death of a patient, stands out. “I interviewed her the same week. That’s why it’s so powerful,” he says. “If you did it now … you’d get a completely different interview.”
Other films about Covid-19 have been made, including Matthew Heineman’s The First Wave, which covers the early spread of the virus in America, and In The Same Breath, which follows the initial outbreak in Wuhan, China. The final episode of Lenox Hill, a Netflix series about the famed New York City hospital, is particularly traumatising.
But Trotman believes he’s captured something others haven’t: an ultra-personal, inside look at the toll Covid took on those working on the frontlines, on a global scale. Humanising medicine, says Trotman, has always been his desire in the films he makes. Here, that’s writ large. “[I want to] discourage the expectation that doctors and nurses are infallible drones,” he says.
That, and the desire to document an unprecedented time in history, gave Trotman the drive to make his movie, no matter how bleak the end result is. He hopes it’s a document for the ages. “There’s going to be a very strong political will to forget and ignore what happened and the sacrifices people made,” he says. “I don’t want that to happen.”
Watch Behind the Mask on Vimeo.